Warm, dry winter leads to 'intense' allergy season

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 7:18 AM
Last updated Wednesday, March 14, 2012 1:12 AM
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Brenda Ferrell considers her allergies much improved after years of desensitization shots, but now the pollen is definitely getting to her.

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Brenda Ferrell gets a pulmonary function test at an Evans clinic. She has taken shots to control her allergies and says pollen is affecting her health.  JACKIE RICCIARDI/STAFF
JACKIE RICCIARDI/STAFF
Brenda Ferrell gets a pulmonary function test at an Evans clinic. She has taken shots to control her allergies and says pollen is affecting her health.

“It has really been a tough winter,” she said in an exam room at Augusta Fam­ily Allergy & Immunology on Tues­day.

A warmer and drier winter could be leading to a worse-than-usual season for those with tree and grass allergies, experts said.

The Cli­mate Prediction Center of the Na­tion­al Oceanic and Atmospheric Ad­ministration announced last week that the La Nina weather pattern was ending this month and turning to a more neutral weather pattern.

La Nina tends to lead to warmer and drier weather in the Southeast, the center said.

The La Nina effect could persist for months, however, and has already resulted in a mild and dry winter in Georgia, said Nyasha Dunkley, the deputy state climatologist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“It was very mild, very warm and very dry,” she said – the third-driest winter on record.

The warmer weather can coax the trees to begin releasing pollen early and give an earlier start to the allergy season, Dunkley said.

“If that continues into the spring, it can also increase the pollen counts,” she said.

That appears to be happening now, said Dr. Dennis Ownby, the chief of allergy and immunology at Medical College of Georgia Hospital.

“We’re seeing a lot of people with red itchy eyes and stuffy noses already,” he said. “I would guess that it is going to be pretty intense for the next couple of months at least.”

The dry air can have a double-whammy effect, Ownby said.

“If we have a lot of rain, that does tend to pull pollen out of the air where, if it is very dry, pollen that is released tends to stay in circulation,” he said. And there might be more of it because of the drought.

“It seems that in a lot of plants when growth is not as good, that is when they are stressed; they produce more pollen, presumably to try to make sure they perpetuate themselves,” Ownby said.

Most of central and southern Georgia is in extreme drought, Dunkley said. All of that – an earlier and longer tree season, more heavily pollinating plants – adds up to bad news for allergy patients, Ownby said.

What is alarming to Dr. Vanitcha Pin­tavorn, at Augusta Family Allergy, is the allergy patients who are showing up with asthma but haven’t had it before.

“It could be scary,” she said, if the higher pollen amounts are causing that.

Asthma symptoms can be subtle, such as a persistent cough or chest tightness, and patients who do not know they have asthma tend to underestimate the severity, Pintavorn said.

Her advice to patients is to seek help if they are struggling and “don’t wait to call the doctor in the morning.”

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