Nothing to sneeze at: Got pollen? Got allergy, too!

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PITTSFIELD — My editor must have been clairvoyant when she asked me to write about allergies associated with this year's unusually high pollen count across the region. That's because half my face had ballooned to near-softball-size as a result of eye swelling caused by excess pollen exposure, aggravated by a bug bite.

Curious about the high counts of pollen in the Berkshires and southern Vermont, I checked in with the National Weather Service office in nearby Albany, N.Y., and had at least some of my suspicions on seasonal temperatures and pollen increase confirmed by Stephen DiRienzo, a staff meteorologist.

"As it gets warmer in the late spring, trees and flowers begin to bloom and spread pollen. This happens every year," DiRienzo wrote in an e-mail.

But I really hit the mother load right back in Pittsfield with Dr. Thomas Edwards, a board-certified allergist at Berkshire Allergy Care, who is also on the faculty at Albany Medical School, and has practiced in the area for 19 years.

Berkshire Allergy Care, I found, provides a unique public service. Over the phone, it offers an extensive breakdown, to include types of trees of pollen counts in the Berkshires based on measurements taken by instruments owned by his office.

"My technician operates the instrument and we have it placed in Pittsfield at a location optimal to measure reliable readings," Edwards said.

Edwards agreed the pollen counts were high this year, also noting that the most recent reading showed that while tree pollen has been high for about a month, grass pollen counts are now heading up the meter. Good to know when mowing!

Pollen, itself, is innocuous, according to Edwards, but certain individuals have a genetic predisposition to form the antibodies of allergy against pollen. When those antibodies encounter the pollen, they bind to the pollen and then trigger the allergic reaction.

"Also, there are multiple factors that make a difference from year to year," Edwards said. "Some trees go through natural biological cycles, so that effects the pollen count. Other variables include how the winter was, in terms of cold and snow, and then come spring, how much water is in the ground. All these thing affect the pollen level of trees."

Edwards was quick to note that while spring is easily the busiest season for his practice, there remain people who are not affected at all by pollen, unlike the above description.

The symptoms of pollen allergies range from the simple to the dramatic. Addressing my circumstances, Edwards was clear:

"If you already have some eye puffiness and swelling, and then have it compounded with a second irritant, such as a bug bite, the results can, as you saw, be dramatic," he said.

In further discussing overall symptoms from pollen allergies, Edwards noted highlights, such as watery, itchy and swollen eyes, nasal symptoms like a runny nose, sneezing or congestion, along with an itchy or scratchy throat not unlike the start of a sore throat from a cold.

Another common reaction is itchy skin, and an afflicted person can even begin coughing and wheezing and show signs of asthma symptoms, which could also come with chest heaviness and tightness, and "just general malaise, feeling tired, feeling terrible overall, getting headaches, sinus and facial pain," Edwards said.

An important point to symptoms, Edwards was quick to note, is that they tend to be more pronounced in children.

"Absolutely, because children are physically smaller than adults, they have less area, for example, on their face to absorb the same swelling an adult would," Edwards said. "It's true for those asthma symptoms, too. In a child, it just takes far less to clog up those airways."

In light of this comprehensive rundown, the last thing I wanted to know was the most obvious: What can we do about it, from the clinical to the do-it-yourself?

• You can stay indoors, keep windows closed when possible, use air conditioning (as it filters airborne agents), and that also includes using AC when driving.

• If you have been outdoors and then comes back inside, rinse off your hands right away and gently splash cool water on your face and in and around your eyes.

• "Invariably, if affected, you'll need medication," Edwards said. "Depending on your symptoms, that can range from antihistamines to allergy eye drops. Also nasal sprays and decongestants. More severe patients would go on oral steroids."

People who have a very bad allergy season, Edwards continued, might be inclined to prevention with allergy immunotherapy, which involves desensitization. This includes allergy shots and sublingual drop therapy, put under the tongue.

"There are good therapies," Edwards said. "People should not just suffer through it. They should seek out good comprehensive treatment and take preventive measures."

For regional daily pollen count and analysis, call Berkshire Allergy Care at 413-443-4826, and press 7 for the daily report. For general information and national trends, visit pollen.com

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at
tchalkias@aol.com or on Twitter @TellyHalkias


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