Allergies rising, allergenic trees in Southern Utah, what to do; STGnews Videocast

ST. GEORGE – This year’s warm winter temperatures have pushed up pollen levels and increased suffering for many who are affected by outdoor allergies.

Pollen Count, Utah, April 2015 | Graph courtesy of Intermountain Allergy and Asthma (website link under resources to attached report), St. George News
Pollen Count, Utah, April 23, 2015 | Graph courtesy of Intermountain Allergy and Asthma, St. George News

Pollen levels are very high right now in the St. George area, said Dr. Kenneth Pinna, of Southwest Allergy and Asthma. Pollen levels in Cedar City and northern Utah are also high, although those areas are about a month behind in the pollen cycle.

St. George has three allergy seasons, spring, summer and fall. While allergy season generally starts in March, Pinna said, with temperatures being warmer the last three or four years, it now includes all of February.

“So we really only get a break from December to January,” he said.

There is also a midsummer break in July, as plants don’t pollinate when temperatures are over 100 degrees.

In early spring, trees are the biggest culprit, while later in the spring, grasses become problematic.

While the most well-known allergy symptoms are sniffling, sneezing and itching, there are other more subtle symptoms, Pinna said.

These symptoms can include headaches, eye pain or pressure, brain fog and just feeling “off.” Although these symptoms can come from other causes, if they happen in a pattern at certain times of the year, they might well be allergies, Pinna said.

“The good thing about allergies is that they’re treatable,” Pinna said.

Avoidance, medications, and allergy shots have been common treatments, but now there is a new option: desensitization treatment with tablets rather than injections. The new tablets are expensive, and are only available for a few allergens as yet, Pinna said, but more are coming.

Flowers aren’t the problem

While the word “pollen” conjures images of flowers, Pinna said the most bothersome allergens come from windborne pollen produced by trees, grasses and weeds.

Some try a homeopathic approach of eating local honey to desensitize themselves to allergens. Pinna doesn’t find that approach particularly effective.

Top of Ash Tree, St. George, Utah, June 16, 2014 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News
Top of Ash Tree, St. George, Utah, June 16, 2014 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

“Wind-pollinated plants cause most of the allergies,” Pinna said. “Insect-pollinating plants, such as most flowers, can be allergenic but are usually less so. That’s why it’s generally not effective to use local honey. You will be desensitized to whatever flowering plants are out there that are attracting local bees. But the problem is that most of the allergy is going to be from a wind-pollinating plant and that won’t attract the honeybee.”

People have inadvertently made things worse by disrupting the soil, which allows allergen-producing plants such as tumble weeds to grow, and by planting trees that produce pollen.

Where we live we are inundated by a very terrible allergen called an ash tree,” Pinna said. “There isn’t a house that’s built that doesn’t have an ash tree, in the last 15 years.”

Ash trees are cheap, but “extremely” allergenic; as are mulberry trees, which were planted extensively before ash trees became popular.

Degreed Arborist Mark Hodges, who has also sat on the shade tree board for the City of St. George, told St. George News last year that 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. But, Hodges said, in nature, the male trees are the pollinators, and the female trees suck up the pollen. St. George’s urban forest consists of 12 percent mulberry trees, he said, with 99 percent of those being male mulberry trees, with no females to absorb the pollen.

In addition, trees that are watered and fertilized pump out huge amounts of pollen, Pinna said. This inundates yards and neighborhoods with allergens.

There are a lot of nonallergenic decorative trees available and the local nurseries know which ones they are, but people often don’t ask.

Some of the most common allergens in Southern Utah are: oak, olive, alder, mulberry and ash trees; several grasses, especially Bermuda grass; as well as sagebrush and Russian thistle, which is also known as tumbleweed. These plants are all wind-pollinated.

More people with allergies

Being prone to allergies runs in families, and allergic reactions are increasing in number and severity, Pinna said. “The mom and dad might just have sniffles, and the kids could have worse.”

We see now, the new generation of kids … that the allergies are definitely, scientifically proven to be, more severe in them,” he said. The number of children with allergies is increasing.

Scientists attribute it to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which proposes that human immune systems evolved to fight much bigger challenges than we face today in the Western world; and the lack of immune challenges causes some to overreact to common substances such as pollen.

“You can imagine, 200 years ago we were eating rotten food every day, we had no refrigeration, no electricity … and we lived in pig pens,” Pinna said. “No matter how rich you were, you all had body lice and things like that.”

Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, grows in Southern Utah and is highly allergenic | Stock image, St. George News
Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, grows in Southern Utah and is highly allergenic | Stock image, St. George News

Since the advent of modern hygiene and antibiotics, people have become more allergic, he said. The hypothosis is hard to prove, because there are so many other factors involved in allergic reactions, but it makes sense to Pinna, and the data supports it, he said.

So what can parents do? Some studies that show early introduction of allergens may prevent some children from getting allergies.

“So if you’re going to have a pet, start from the very beginning,” Pinna said, and take your children outside. “Try to keep your kids outdoors, from a very early age.”

However, if there is allergy, accept it and treat it.

What to do about allergy symptoms

If you have allergy symptoms, there are several things you can do about it.

The first thing to try is simple avoidance, by keeping your windows closed, and washing or taking a shower after you’ve been outside, so you don’t get pollen from your hair onto your pillow.

“Once you’ve pollinated your bedroom, you’ve got a problem,” Pinna said.

Pollens in the bedroom mean a person will be exposed to them all night long. Also, keep pets out of the bedroom, as they can carry pollen, or can be an allergen themselves.

Hodges agreed. He said:

Make sure your filters are those that reduce pollens in the air and keep the filter running. Run the AC vs. leaving doors and windows open. When you come home, shower, don’t sit on the couch, don’t lay on your bed, shower. Keep 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.

Mulberry tree bloom. Mulberries give off large amounts of pollen, and are common in St. George landscaping,  | Stock image, St. George News
Mulberry tree bloom. Mulberry trees give off large amounts of pollen, and are common in St. George landscaping, | Stock image, St. George News

Avoid parking in the shade of the mulberry trees when out and about town; blooms collect on cars for a ride-along, contaminating your home zone.

Hodges, a tree specialist, suffers from allergies himself.

“This is funny,” he said. “I’m allergic to trees – it’s like a veterinarian being allergic to pet dander.”

Do what you can to keep your home zone allergen-free, he said. He removed all of the allergen producing trees from his own yard, replacing them with nonallergenic trees.

“It’s better to just cut them down,” Hodges said.

If avoidance doesn’t work, the next step is to try over-the-counter antihistamine medications. If that doesn’t work, or if you have complications such as difficulty breathing or sinus infections, Pinna said, it’s a good idea to see a doctor or specialist, and there are a lot of treatment options available.

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

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2 Comments

  • sagemoon April 27, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Dr. Pinna is the best allergy doctor for miles!

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