Spring Allergies and Asthma Are Problems in Western Mass.

A Blooming Challenge

By David Robertson, MD, MPH, MBA

Spring is a season of rebirth and rejuvenation, with flowers blooming and the world around us turning from brown to green. However, for many area residents, this beautiful transformation comes with a less-welcome companion, with Springfield consistently ranking as one of the worst cities in the country for allergies and asthma.

This year, the warm winter that just came to an end is set to extend the allergy season, bringing about an early and possibly more intense onset of symptoms for allergy sufferers.


The Warm Winter Effect

Typically, cold winters help delay the start of the allergy season by keeping plants dormant and the ground frozen longer. A warmer winter can lead to an earlier thawing and activation of outdoor molds in the soil. This early activity, combined with spring rains, means that outdoor mold spores are already circulating, ready to trigger allergy symptoms. With tree pollen following closely behind, residents may find themselves in the midst of a particularly challenging allergy season.


Understanding Allergies and Asthma

Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to substances in the environment, known as allergens, which are harmless to most people. These can include tree, grass, and weed pollens; molds; animal danders; and dust mites. When these allergens are inhaled or come into contact with the skin, they can cause symptoms such as sneezing, itching, runny nose, and watery eyes.

“Managing allergies and asthma requires a multifaceted approach. The three basic strategies for dealing with environmental allergens are avoidance, medications, and allergy immunotherapy.”

For some, allergies can also exacerbate asthma, a condition characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways in the lungs, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. Asthma can be triggered by allergens as well as changes in the weather, making the spring season particularly challenging for individuals with both allergies and asthma.


Strategies for Relief

Managing allergies and asthma requires a multifaceted approach. The three basic strategies for dealing with environmental allergens are avoidance, medications, and allergy immunotherapy.

The first line of defense is to minimize exposure to allergens. This can include staying indoors on days when pollen counts are high, using air purifiers at home, and changing clothes and rinsing off after time spent outside. Some people also find wearing masks or even protective eyewear helpful, particularly with activities that may increase allergen exposure, like cutting the grass and gardening.

Many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can help manage symptoms of allergies and asthma. Antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays, and eye drops are widely used to alleviate allergy symptoms, while asthma sufferers often use prescription inhalers to control their symptoms. However, choosing the right medication can be daunting due to the vast array of options available.

For those with severe allergies, allergy immunotherapy, which includes allergy shots and sublingual tablets, may be an option. This long-term treatment gradually desensitizes the body to specific allergens, potentially providing lasting relief.


Navigating Treatment Options

While many effective treatments are available over the counter, selecting the right product can be challenging without professional guidance.

In studies, nasal steroid sprays like Flonase or Nasacort are the most effective family of medicines for helping with congestion, sneezing, and post-nasal drip, but many people do not like using them. They may not be right for everyone, particularly people prone to nosebleeds or with glaucoma or cataracts.

Oral antihistamines, like Allegra, Claritin, or Zyrtec, can help with sneezing and itching, and these new antihistamines are not supposed to cause drowsiness, though everyone’s body is different. Antihistamine eye drops can help with itchy, watery, or swollen eyes, but can also cause or worsen dry eyes.

Oral decongestants can provide temporary relief of sinus pressure, but can also cause increased blood pressure and insomnia, so we generally recommend minimizing these medications. Nasal decongestant sprays like Afrin can provide temporary relief of congestion, but should not be used for more than two or three days in a row because they can cause increased congestion.

All of these medicines are available in less expensive generic forms, which most people find equally effective.

Given the number of treatment options and potential side effects for some people, it may beneficial to consult with a healthcare provider or an allergist to develop a personalized treatment plan. If you already have a treatment strategy that works for you and your family, now may be a good time to get a few boxes of your preferred medicine — in the last few years, there have been occasional shortages at the peak of allergy season. But leave enough for your neighbors!


The Road Ahead

As Springfield and the surrounding region brace for a longer allergy season, staying informed and proactive in dealing with allergens will be crucial for those looking to enjoy the spring while keeping their symptoms in check.

By understanding the triggers, using effective management strategies, and seeking professional guidance when necessary, allergy sufferers should be able to navigate the challenges of spring allergies and asthma with increased confidence.


Dr. David Robertson is an allergist and clinical immunologist and owner of Western Massachusetts Allergy, LLC in Springfield.