Allergy season blooms early in Utah’s Dixie, pollen peaks, particulars

Peak of the pollen season brings allergies, blossoms and bugs, Zion National Park, Oct. 18, 2012 | Photo by James Wilson, Instagram @shuntavi, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — It’s that time of year when some people sniffle and wheeze through clogged sinuses and rubbing itchy eyes brings momentary relief; yes, Southern Utah’s allergy season is in full swing. But how bad is it this year? How long will it last?

The forecast is muddled. National headlines hype it to be one of the worst allergy years to date in the United States, as online “pollencasts” are reporting extremely high pollen counts. Local experts have noticed a difference from norms primarily in the timing of pollen-producing blooms, but they don’t suspect anything too unusual for the allergic population of Southern Utah.

Flowers near the towers, Zion National Park, Aug. 26, 2012 | Photo by James Wilson, St. George News
Flowers near the towers, Zion National Park, Aug. 26, 2012 | Photo by James Wilson, St. George News

Pollen is peaking 

St. George is coming into its peak allergy season. Peak season means that the pollens from the two plant groups responsible for causing the most allergic reactions – trees and grasses – are both being released at the same time.

Trees and grasses typically start releasing pollen at different times in the spring. Trees start and end releasing pollen earlier than grasses and only in the spring. Grasses start later in the spring, die down in the summer, and release pollen again in the fall. For a period of time there is a crossover when both plant types are releasing pollens that contribute to allergies. Southern Utah is in that crossover period.

Mark Hodges is a degreed arborist who sits on the City of St. George’s Shade Tree and Beautification Board as well as the Utah Community Forestry Council.

“Usually we don’t come out until middle of March and we came out like the third week in February,” Hodges said  “So we were two to three weeks earlier than usual.”

And it was kind of weird, he said, some blooms of one kind of tree came out first in some areas but waited to bloom a couple weeks later in other areas.

The fruit trees – ornamental pears, plums, and red buds – have already bloomed.

Both mulberry trees and ash are producing now.

Those that suffered from the cold – olives, oleanders, southern live oaks, and palm trees – have yet to bloom, Hodges said. Not all of the cottonwoods have bloomed. Birch, cedar, pine, elm, oak and pecan have not come out yet, but should bloom soon and, he said, they produce a lot of pollen.

The biggest pollinators in and around the St. George area are the mulberry and ash trees. Fruit-bearing trees are often undesirable so urban foresters have gone to planting male nonbearing trees, Hodges said. But in nature, the male trees are the pollinators, and the female trees suck up the pollen. So, in St. George, we now have an urban forest consisting of 12 percent mulberry trees, he said, with 99 percent of those being male mulberry trees and no females to absorb the pollen.

Grasses are the other main allergy-causing plant in Southern Utah and they will be kicking in real soon, Dr. Duane Harris, internal medicine physician and allergy specialist from Intermountain Allergy and Asthma, said.

During this crossover time period, Harris said, when the tree pollens overlap with the grass pollens you’ve got a double whammy for people with allergies.

Harris works primarily out of Draper, but is dialed into Southern Utah’s pollens because he travels to St. George several times a month to treat patients specifically for allergy related issues. This season he hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary for Southern Utah despite newscasts he has seen alerting this year to be the worst pollen year ever which pertain to regions back east that have received a lot of rain and cold.

“It’s going to be about normal,” Harris said, “although St. George has gotten a little less precipitation then normal.” 

Precipitation and allergy levels

The amount of seasonal rain an area gets directly affects pollen counts, Harris said. A low precipitation year has two noteworthy effects, one short-term, one long-term.

Plant in Zion National Park, March. 16, 2011 | Photo by James Wilson, St. George News

In the short term, a low precipitation year leads to less pollen in the grasses at the later part of the year, while in the long term that dry year will result in less pollen in the trees the following year.

Pollencasts

With no pollen monitoring system anywhere nearby, Dr. Harris bases his  Southern Utah forecast mainly off northern Utah’s pollen monitoring site in Draper and also off his interaction with patients from St. George when he’s here.

Despite some variances in pollen producers, the majority of the pollen-producing plants that give rise to allergies in Utah grow throughout the state. So, Harris said, he theorizes that pollen counts in the southern end of the state are typically about 4-6 weeks ahead of the northern end; meaning that in 4-6 weeks, northern Utah will be at its peak.

At the Draper monitoring site, Harris helps to take daily pollen samples, put them under a microscope and then log the results. Then, Intermountain Allergy and Asthma puts out a reoccurring allergy report for northern Utah. Harris used the history of this report to predict Southern Utah’s pollen forecast.

Other organizations use northern Utah numbers to predict Southern Utah pollen as well. One popular “pollencast” that rates pollen levels for St. George on a daily basis is done by the Weather Channel. Melissa Medori, TWC’s public relations manager, said that the St. George pollencast report used on its Weather.com website is actually from Intermountain Allergy and Asthma, where Harris works – the only pollen monitoring site in the State.

Simple tips

One easy tip from Harris for those who suffer through pollen allergies: If you spend time outside, make sure to take a shower at night instead of in the morning, then you won’t lay in the pollen all night which can exacerbate your allergic symptoms.

Since Pollen sticks to you, Hodges gave tips that go further and aim at creating an allergy-free zone in your own home:

“When you come home, shower. Don’t sit on the couch, don’t lay on your bed, shower – take your shoes off at the door, as you’re outside that pollen is sticking to you and you’re tracking through that pollen and bringing it into your house and you’re taking it to bed with you.”

Use air filters that reduce pollens in the air and run your air conditioner rather than leaving your doors open.

Bee in pollen, Zion National Park, Sep. 7, 2011 | Photo by James Wilson, St. George News
Bee in pollen, Zion National Park, Sep. 7, 2011 | Photo by James Wilson, St. George News

Identifying which tree pollens you’re allergic to can also help, Hodges said. If you have an allergy test and find you are allergic to a particular kind of tree,  you can avoid parking your car under that kind of tree and you might want to remove those kinds of trees from your own yard so that you are not repeatedly tracking in that pollen.

False allergy

Harris said that a common old wives’ tale exists regarding cotton allergies. In most cases, Harris said, people falsely believe they are allergic to cotton falling off cottonwood trees because cotton typically falls off the trees at about the same time that grasses start to bloom. People started believing they were allergic to the cotton when in fact they were just allergic to the grasses.

“People think it’s the cotton that is creating their allergies, but usually that’s not it,” he said, “it’s the grass pollen that you can’t see.”

Treatment

You’re not born with allergies, Wesley Norwood a physicians assistant who specializes in allergies said. In fact, you have to be sensitized or exposed  to certain pollens and then your body overreacts. The good thing is, for most people, you can actually get this overreactive part of your immune system under control.

Most people have minimum allergy symptoms and can take care of them with over-the-counter medications, Harris said. For these people, it might be interesting, but not necessary to go see a specialized allergist.

However, if you are really suffering from allergies, Harris said it would be a major bennefit to go see a certified allergist. Allergists can distinguish what the patient is allergic to, give them tips on certain times of the year to stay indoors and suggest more medications or treatments like immunal therapy that can all be specialized to their specific allergy.

St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.

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