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Pollen season is here in Sacramento. Here’s how to stop those allergy symptoms

Did you enjoy the beautiful weekend weather in Sacramento? Or was it a nightmare of sneezing, stuffy noses and itchy eyes?

That likely depends on whether you’re among the tens of millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies. If so, there’s some bad news: Forecasts show that spring’s blooming trees will bring very high pollen activity.

It’ll be bad enough that allergy forecasting website put Saturday and Sunday as a 9.7 out of 12 on its pollen index. That’s a quick turnaround: Last Wednesday, the website said Sacramento was one of the nation’s five best cities for allergy sufferers, with a pollen score of 3.0.

Warm and clear weather following heavy rain can make for the worst pollen conditions. A midweek storm last week brought rain, thunderstorms and gusty winds to Sacramento before temperatures hit the 70s Saturday and Sunday.

For those with allergies, here is how to relieve some symptoms as pollen season hits full strength.

An allergist weighs in

Dr. Gil Magpantay, a Davis-based immunologist and allergy specialist with Sutter Health, said tree pollen season is arriving right on time for the region, but grass pollen may be showing up a bit early.

Grass pollen is more typical in the summer for the Sacramento area, but tree pollen can be an issue for allergy sufferers from March through May, he said. Both are major allergens in the region, and the combination could make for an uncomfortable start to spring.

“Having rain is good and bad for pollen,” Magpantay said. “It’s good in the sense that it does clear the atmosphere. But it’s also bad because after rain, trees tend to grow faster and have more pollen.”

The worst pollen activity is usually two to three days after heavy rain, he said, which accounts for the weekend’s pollen activity.

Magpantay said temperate weather in the Sacramento-Davis area makes our allergy season less severe but longer-lasting than places like the southern U.S.

Even within California, allergy effects can vary, he said.

“It’s certainly more prominent in this air compared to the coast.”

Magpantay said he often treats UC Davis students who have moved to the area from elsewhere, including the Bay Area, and find they have allergies they were unaware of.

“Usually they have a risk of developing allergies to begin with,” he said. “A lot of times they develop allergies, and it can take up to two years where you develop new allergies.”

Allergies are genetic but can take time to show themselves in each individual. They’re less common in older patients, but they can develop any time, the specialist said.

Magpantay described three main categories of treatment to consider depending on the severity of symptoms: avoidance, over-the-counter medicines and allergy shots.

Avoidance can be as simple as limiting outdoor time, keeping windows closed in the house and car, and showering at night to avoid sleeping with pollen or dander on your skin.

High-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, air filters have also proven effective in keeping pesky pollen out.

The two main types of over-the-counter medications, Magpantay said, are intranasal corticosteroids (such as Flonase and Nasonex) and antihistamines (he recommends Zyrtec or Allegra). These all have the benefit of being nondrowsy.

The most extensive treatment, generally reserved for the worst allergy sufferers, is to start a regimen of shots.

Terrible allergies? Try five years of shots

Magpantay likened allergy shots to flu shots, but they’re more time-intensive.

“There’s two phases – where you build up to it weekly, and then eventually you go monthly for a five-year total course of treatment,” he said.

Those five years can cure allergies for life and are about 85 to 90 percent rate effective, Magpantay said. He said there is no age limit; you can start any time.

The benefits start to kick in after three to six months of shots, and the patient will usually be cured of allergies after one to two years. But patients can also relapse if they stop before the full five-year treatment plan is over, the doctor said, which makes it a heavy commitment.

“It’s like anything in medicine,” he said. “The completion rate is pretty low. But we have a lot of patients that are dedicated in their treatment plans.”

Allergy shots are personalized. Patients are tested for their allergies, and immunologists develop individualized shots for their particular sets of allergens. These are not limited to seasonal allergies; shots can also assist asthma and sensitivities to things like dust or pet dander, Magpantay said.

Nip it in the ‘bud’

The “avoidance” strategy is the easiest and cheapest method to ward off the sneezes. Lists of tips to ease allergy symptoms by the Mayo Clinic, WebMD and seem to agree that the key is to be proactive.

Here’s a summary of some of these tips:

  • Pay attention to pollen forecasts, which can be found on weather websites and Mayo Clinic says it’s a good idea to take allergy medicines on high-pollen days before the symptoms start.
  • Use humidifiers and air conditioning with HEPA filters, and make sure the filters are changed regularly. This will help keep the pollen out.
  • Change clothes and shower after any significant outdoor time. Your clothes, your hair and your skin will have pollen stuck to them.
  • Consider wearing sunglasses (or in extreme cases, a full pollen mask) to shield your eyes and face from allergens.

Is Sacramento really that bad?

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in March published a ranking of the 100 most populous metropolitan areas in the U.S. based on the prevalence of allergies.

The 2019 list — which scores the regions based on pollen index, number of allergy medication prescriptions issued and number of board-certified allergists — ranks Sacramento better than average at No. 80 with an index score of 43.79, with 100 being the worst. (McAllen, Texas, earned that distinction each of the past two springs.)

While the foundation’s list suggests we may not be as bad off as we think, Sacramento did rank worse than the two biggest Bay Area cities, San Francisco (No. 90) and San Jose (92), as well as San Diego (88).

The metro areas of Fresno (No. 31) and Modesto (39) scored slightly worse than average, and Stockton (65) scored about average.

Denver was the best major city for those who suffer spring allergies, the foundation found.

Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.