Mild winter triggers tougher allergy season

Have you noticed that the green grass hasn’t quite vanished this year? Whether you were in Central Park or Prospect Park, you may have noticed that, unlike other years when the green shades turned to a dusty brown over the winter months, for the most part, the grass has stayed green all winter long. While pleasing to the eye, the very fact that plants have sustained life since last year could spell out trouble for those of us with seasonal allergies. On top of that, the flowers and trees have budded earlier because of the mild winter — and the spring allergies have arrived earlier, too.

Sandy O’Hara of Murray Hill says her whole family suffers from seasonal allergies. Sandy and her 5-year-old son, Matthew, are allergic to pollen and dust mites, and her husband, Frank has hay fever.

“Early March was particularly bad for my son and me. We were sneezing and our eyes were constantly itchy,” says O’Hara. “We both started on allergy medications earlier in the year than we had in the past.”

The O’Hara’s are not alone. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports that allergy is the fifth leading chronic disease in the U.S. among all ages, and the third most common chronic disease among children under 18 years old, with an estimated 50 million Americans suffering from all types of allergies. Experts say that the prevalence of allergies is significantly increasing, and although allergies are widespread, they are often the most overlooked disease.

A key part of any treatment plan is to receive the proper diagnosis and management plan for your specific allergy, instead of mixing medications for allergies you may not have.

“One of the most important tips, which might seem self-evident, is to ensure that you are using medications properly,” explains Dr. Scott Gottlieb, director of pain management at Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary. “For example, nasal steroids can be very effective for those who suffer from hay fever, but you must start using them well before symptoms appear. They prevent, rather than treat, the symptoms. If you start taking them after your symptoms have kicked in, they will be less effective.”

Along the same lines, it’s vital to fill prescriptions before allergy season, “so that you have your arsenal ready before you begin to suffer,” he says.

“Make sure that you tailor your medications to your symptoms. Many people purchase over-the-counter medications, because the box says ‘allergy,’ and they end up ingesting a medication they don’t need — for example, an allergy pill might contain a decongestant, but you are trying to address itchy eyes. Take care to read all labels, or speak with your physician, to ensure that you are taking something that will address your particular symptoms.”

O’Hara agrees and says that she was on the fence about getting her son allergy tested and hadn’t even considered her common complaints of itchy eyes and post nasal drip to be a problem, but when her son underwent testing, she did, too. Both tested positive for the same pollen allergy and since they’ve been on medication, they have felt considerably better.

Realistically, because pollen counts have started increasing earlier this year, doctors say we can expect symptoms to last longer and be more severe. Symptoms include:

• Itchy, watery eyes

• Sneezing

• Running nose

• Nasal congestion

• Postnasal drip

Treatments such as over-the-counter Allegra pills may provide some relief, but allergy shots deliver the longest-term support.

There are a few easy tips that moms and dads should do daily to help combat allergies in their children (and themselves):

• Avoid outside play on late afternoons when it’s dry and windy, since pollen counts peak under those circumstances

• Take a long shower at the end of the day to wash away any pollen stuck in hair.

Danielle Sullivan, a Brooklyn-born mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. She also writes for Find her on Facebook and Twitter @DanniSullWriter, or at her blog, Just Write Mom.