Anyone with allergies knows the horror of an attack: Your eyes tear up, your sinuses expand, sometimes your lungs tighten. Those with fall allergies might be noticing those symptoms are amplified this year.
“This year is worse because of all the rain we had early,” Idaho Falls allergist Gene Petty said. “As soon as the warm weather started, everything started going off.”
Most times allergies are an inconvenience, but people who have allergy-induced asthma can find themselves dangerously short of breath or experiencing asthma attacks that lead to hospitalization. The same plants that cause allergic rhinitis, better known as hay fever, or allergic conjunctivitis — or weepy, itchy eyes — affect those with allergy-induced asthma.
Since seasonal allergies shift throughout the warm parts of the year, those who are affected the most in the spring may not be the ones whose noses are stuffed up this time of year. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s National Allergy Bureau puts out a weekly pollen and mold report that found high concentrations of both weed pollen and mold spores over the past few weeks at a station in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Though south-central Idaho might feel far from the Tetons, many of the same plants reported by the Allergy Bureau — aster, sage, lamb’s quarters — have been found in Jackson Hole, so the information can shed light on this region.
“Eastern Idaho can act as a stand-in because we don’t have a data center here,” said Dr. Martin Trott, an ear, nose and throat doctor at St. John’s Medical Center.
Perry might be right in thinking that what felt like a late, wet spring might be the cause of the proliferating pollen. It may have put flowering and fruiting plants behind their typical schedule, pushing back when flora like serviceberries bloomed. A dry August sent pollen, dust and mold into the air, potentially wreaking havoc on people with asthma.
Teton Conservation District GIS and Wildlife Specialist Morgan Graham said anecdotally the fall bloom is taking its toll.
“Whether it’s pollen or dust, when you’re out and about pulling thistles,” he said, “you’re choking on it. I haven’t had bad pollen allergies all season, but the last two weeks I’ve been breathing in something that’s irritating.”
Graham’s anecdote indicates a truism about allergy season: It’s actually more like several seasons, each defined by a subset of plants or molds and affecting a distinct group of people. Petty, the Idaho Falls allergist, said lowland trees like the Utah juniper, which runs along the Snake River, start up in March, while other trees drop their pollen in April. Grass pollen is the main culprit for allergies throughout June and July.
Plants like ragweed and lamb’s quarters are the main allergens in August, and sagebrush allergy season usually starts in September. Weeds and sagebrush can remain allergy risks until a solid snow blankets the ground and pushes the pollen down.
“If you’re hunting in November and we have an Indian summer,” Perry said, “you’re going to have problems with sagebrush.”
Because Jackson is higher in elevation than eastern Idaho and the snowpack sticks around much longer, the allergy season is compressed, so trees may not start becoming problematic until May. But the plants have adapted to the truncation.
“We generally have intense summers because the growing season is so fast,” Trott said.
With potential for several more months of allergy problems, Petty and Trott recommended people take precautions, especially if they have historically had fall allergies. Petty said the immunotherapy allergy shots are the most effective method, though they are a six- or seven-year commitment.
He advised against the single-time allergy shot, which is a steroid. The shots can last from several weeks to a few months, but they carry risks, including anxiety, restlessness and high blood pressure. Since they are an injection, they cannot be reversed, unlike an oral steroid like prednisone, which Perry prescribes for those who have asthma-related allergy attacks.
Over-the-counter antihistamines like Claritin and Zyrtec (and their generic equivalents) have become safe options for controlling reactions to allergens, Perry said. But people with asthma should have a primary medication for asthma as well, like a rescue inhaler.
Prevention is the best option, and over-the-counter medicines are the first line of defense for that.
“If someone knows their bad season,” Trott said, “if you start treating prior to that, maybe a week or two ahead, it keeps the pump from being primed.”