Blame irregular weather for nightmarish allergies

Nurse Tracy Johnson fills a syringe to administer an allergy test recently at Allergy and Asthma Associates in Crystal Lake.
Nurse Tracy Johnson fills a syringe to administer an allergy test recently at Allergy and Asthma Associates in Crystal Lake.

A mild winter gave McHenry County residents plenty to be happy about.

But then came an early spring and an extremely dry summer. And soon it wasn’t just farmers who were in pain. Those who suffer from outdoor allergies faced a nightmare.

“This has been a very strange year for allergies,” said Dr. David Chudwin, an allergist with Allergy and Asthma Associates in Crystal Lake. “It’s been the strangest year in the 30 years that I’ve been practicing.”

Outdoor allergies – also called seasonal allergic rhinitis, hay fever or nasal allergies – occur when outdoor allergens are inhaled and cause an allergic reaction, such as a sneeze, cough or itchy, watery eyes. Common outdoor allergens are mold spores and tree, grass and weed pollen.

This year’s allergy perfect storm of a mild winter, including an unseasonably warm February, and an early spring caused trees to pollinate earlier than normal.

“It was an awful time in early spring,” Chudwin said.

In late summer and early autumn, record-breaking mold counts were causing even mild allergy sufferers to dread the outdoors.

In August and September, mold counts were high, sending the area into an air-quality alert.

Mold typically is associated with dampness, but mold spores also are associated with dying vegetation. Because it was so dry this summer, the plants were rotting and the mold count grew.

“Mold sensitive people are the people who are really suffering,” Chudwin said.

The latest reading at the National Allergy Bureau Pollen and Mold Report in Melrose Park said there was moderate mold concentration for the Chicago area. Trees, weeds and grasses were recorded as “absent.”

There was some relief for those with a ragweed allergy because the plant did not grow at its typically quick rate this year.

For those with outdoor allergies, the first heavy frost brings welcome relief. But for those bothered by common indoor allergens, the season of suffering is just beginning.

Mary Lasky of McHenry has had allergies since she was a child and has been seeing Dr. Chudwin for about 10 years.

On her most recent visit, the doctor gave her a skin test for her allergies.

He injected trace amounts of various allergens into her back. If she was allergic, a round, red bump appeared. It didn’t hurt, Lasky said, “just itches.”

The results revealed that Lasky is allergic to many common outdoor allergens: mold, ragweed and certain tree pollens.

But there will be no relief for her when she heads indoors. Lasky also is allergic to common indoor allergens – cats and dust. When the furnace kicks on, it also kicks up dust.

Winter also means the start of the cold and flu season. Oftentimes, those maladies can be confused with allergies.

Symptoms may be similar, but a cold has a fever and is usually gone in 10 days. Allergies have no fever and may be persistent.

“Hay fever is a misnomer,” Chudwin said. “It’s not caused by hay, and there’s no fever associated with it.

“There are those people who say, ‘I’ve had a cold for three weeks.’ It’s not a cold. It’s likely allergies.”

According to the country’s leading expert on allergies, more Americans than ever are sneezing, sniffling and itching.

Allergies are among the country’s most common, but overlooked, diseases, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which estimates 450 million Americans suffer from all types of allergies.

Chudwin, too, has seen the incidence of allergies rise and said it’s because of what he calls the hygiene hypothesis: “Children that lead too clean a life and are not exposed to enough germs to properly adjust their immune system.”

“People who are less prone to allergies include children from large families, children who live on farms, children in underdeveloped countries,” Chudwin said

If left untreated, allergies can cause serious conditions, such as sinusitis or ear infections.

“The only cure – quote, unquote cure – are allergy shots,” Chudwin said, but added that mild allergies can be managed with prescriptions or over-the-counter medications.

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