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Allergy season milder, but lasting longer for some

Hannah Hernandez 13 her sister Hayley Hernandez 14 hold an empty jar organic raw honey as they sit grass park

Hannah Hernandez, 13, and her sister Hayley Hernandez, 14, hold an empty jar of organic, raw honey as they sit in the grass of a park in their subdivision in Pingree Grove. | Ruthie Hauge ~ Sun-Times Media

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Some experts had predicted the effects of climate change could make this allergy season, which started March 18 in the Midwest, the worst ever: an allergy apocalypse caused by an earlier spring and later-ending fall, large amounts of rain and snow, and an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

And “extreme” indoor dust and dander levels in the Elgin area are projected to continue through Sept. 22, according to AccuWeather.com.

But overall, it’s actually not been as bad as expected — at least so far, according to Dr. Joseph Leija, a retired allergist at Loyola Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park and the one person authorized to perform the pollen count for the Midwest for the National Allergy Bureau.

“It still has been a mild season — not as bad as I thought myself it was going to be,” Leija said.

Of course, that knowledge is little relief to allergy sufferers such as Melissa Hernandez of Pingree Grove and her daughters Hayley, 14, and Hannah, 13.

As long as Hernandez can remember, she has had allergies, she said.

“I would have the itching, burning, watery eyes; the sore throat; the runny nose — just that overall malaise feeling,” she said. “You just feel miserable, like you have a cold. You wake up in the morning and you’re like, ‘Is this allergies, or do I have a cold?’ ”

Other symptoms can include sneezing and congestion, as well as anything from hives to eczema, according to Dr. Noga Askenazi, a board-certified allergist and immunologist and asthma specialist with Advanced Allergy and Medical Associates, which has an office in Elgin. People who also have asthma may have more shortness of breath and tightening in their chests during allergy season, she said.

Allergies are caused when the body produces an immune response to a substance that is not usually harmful such as dust and mold, or pollen from ragweed, grass or trees by producing an allergic antibody.

Longer season

Allergies typically are worst from May to September, Leija said. May and June of this year were pretty mild for pollens, he said. Ragweed, though, started picking up in mid-August, he said, and research shows that season is starting earlier and lasting longer into the fall than in years past.

Also, the rain and humidity earlier this spring and summer now have led to “the highest concentration of mold spores we’ve had for a while,” Askenazi added.

Allergies typically affect one in five people, who spend $2 million every year to control their symptoms, Leija said.

Another change Askenazi has seen in the six years she has had her practice is an increase in patients. That could be her practice growing, she admitted. But it also could be more people becoming aware of the treatments available and seeking them out.

But research also suggests food allergies and allergic asthma are on the rise, she said. And she’s seeing symptoms appear in patients younger and older than those she has seen in the past, she said.

“All I can really say is there is a continually increasing number of individuals with more uncontrollable seasonal allergies,” Askenazi said.

Help for sufferers

Every time she’d feel a headache coming on, Hernandez would check the pollen count, and it would back her up, she said: She seems to be allergic to mold and tree pollens. Hayley, too. Hannah seems worse with grasses and weeds.

It got to the point, she said, “I would pop Zyrtec every 12 hours just to function as a normal human being.”

On Monday, Hernandez said her eyes felt a little scratchy.

Hannah said, “I feel like I don’t have allergies any more.”

One thing that Hernandez feels has worked for herself and her daughters, though, is eating more local honey, something she decided to try after researching homeopathic relief for allergies about two years ago. Many allergy sufferers believe eating local honey helps build up immunity to pollen because of the small amount of pollen in the honey.

“I always try to find things that are outside of the box to help treat any kind of ailment. I’d rather take something that’s natural,” she said.

She buys her honey from Fruitful Yield stores, from a bee farm in Sheridan, and goes through about three pounds a week. She uses it to sweeten oatmeal and mixes drinks with lemon and mineral water in place of coffee, she said. When her daughters complain of allergy symptoms, they know what her response will be: “Go take a spoonful of honey.”

Still, a study published in 2002 by University of Connecticut Health Center researchers in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology showed honey does not affect allergies.

Instead, Leija said, “The most important thing is to control as much as possible the environment.”

He suggested allergy sufferers keep windows shut and air conditioning on, especially at night. Shots already are available, and Askenazi said doctors now are testing tablets taken under the tongue, all to boost the body’s immunity to allergens.

Both allergists also suggested taking allergy medication before it’s too late and allergies are in full swing.

“If people took the medication before the season starts, they wouldn’t have any trouble — and I’d be out of business,” Leija said.



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