Healthy Choices

El Niño winter brings more pollen, allergies to Sacramento

A bicyclist rides past wildflowers blooming in the lawn at William Land Park in Sacramento on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. Heavy rains, followed by the wave of warm weather that swept the city in early February, triggered a collective pollen release much more substantial than last year’s, followed by a lot of coughing and sneezing.
A bicyclist rides past wildflowers blooming in the lawn at William Land Park in Sacramento on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. Heavy rains, followed by the wave of warm weather that swept the city in early February, triggered a collective pollen release much more substantial than last year’s, followed by a lot of coughing and sneezing. rbenton@sacbee.com

Since early 2016, Sacramento’s sprigs and sprouts have been enjoying the sporadic storms brought on by El Niño. The thirsty plants have sucked the extra water right up, bloating themselves to a state of lush greenery that suggests hopeful headway against California’s historic drought.

The change in scenery, while pleasing to the eye, is awfully irritating to the nose and throat, allergy sufferers say.

After four years of lackluster plant growth, the spore count in the Sacramento area is up about 20 percent, according to analysts at the National Allergy Bureau pollen station in Roseville. The heavy rains, followed by the wave of warm weather that swept the city in early February, triggered a collective pollen release much more substantial than last year’s, followed by a lot of coughing and sneezing.

“The biomass – the carbon green structures of flowers, weeds and grasses – increases with rain,” said allergist Dr. Travis Miller. “Once the sun comes out, and spring temperatures hit the 50- to 70-degree range with a little bit of wind, the trees, grasses and flowers let go of their pollen and hope that it will spore.”

Miller, who provides specialized allergy care in Sacramento, Roseville and Folsom, said his patients began showing symptoms during the second week of February, a few weeks earlier than the usual March start time.

In an El Niño weather pattern, pollen seasons can last two to 14 days longer than usual, Miller said. That’s a significant difference for the many Sacramentans who suffer from allergy-related nasal drainage, sore throats, shortness of breath and headaches on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Sunil Perera, an allergist who helps monitor the Roseville pollen count station, said he saw the spore counts jump around the second week of March, following a rainstorm that brought 2.34 inches to the area.

“The tree pollens are high, and some of the mold spores are also up,” he said. “With the rainstorm they’ve been down, and this morning when it dried they’ve come up. Once the rain stops again, the pollen will be back.”

The “city of trees” consistently lands on lists of the worst cities for allergies in the United States. About 36 percent of Sacramento residents suffer mold or ragweed allergies, according to Quest Diagnostics, a clinical laboratory service that surveyed patients about allergies. That’s compared with 20 percent of adults nationwide.

The abundance of greenery and mild winters makes Sacramento something of a breeding ground for pesky pollen, Miller said.

“Here we don’t have hard frost with ice and snow, so our plants are unchecked,” he said. “Wet and dry weather play off each other. Tree pollen, wheat grass and mold spores depend on rain as well as dry weather and sunlight. It’s this balance that we see particularly in Northern California in this valley.”

March is also high time for the common cold, and it can be difficult to differentiate between viral illness and a pollen allergy, Miller said. One rule of thumb: If a fever is present, it’s most likely not allergies.

“Though the colloquial term is ‘hay fever,’ most (allergy) patients don’t have an elevated body temperature unless it’s really severe,” he said. “If symptoms last beyond seven days, the likelihood of it being a viral process is much lower.”

Itchy eyes are also much more likely to signal allergy than viral illness, he added.

While many allergy symptoms will abate with help from over-the-counter medication such as Zyrtec and Benadryl, people with more severe symptoms, the kind that significantly disrupt daily routines, should see a doctor.

Many patients can benefit from regular allergy shots that remedy symptoms, or oral immunotherapy tablets that can be placed under the tongue to combat the causal allergy, Miller said.

For those hoping to ride the allergy season out, it’s likely to last awhile. Pollen levels drop after three 100-degree days in a row. Miller said that consistently happens around Memorial Day.

In the meantime, people with allergies can take a few simple steps to keep symptoms at bay.

“Minimize being outdoors at times when there are high pollen counts,” Miller said, referring to the early morning. “If you’re working in the yard, get inside and get a quick shower to get the pollen off your hair and body. Wear glasses to protect your eyes and a hat to protect your face; the nose and mouth are entrances (for pollen).”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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