More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies. In fact, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while San Diegans who moved here from other regions are often relieved to find the seasonal allergies they suffered with back home seem to disappear, they might be surprised to learn San Diego has an allergy season too. It begins January 1 and ends December 31.
“This region is unique. Theoretically, if the wind is blowing off the ocean, we should have very little pollen in the air,” says Ronald Simon, MD, an allergist at Scripps Clinic. “But when we get a Santa Ana wind condition, we get hit with allergens from as far away as Nevada and Arizona. And after rains, the trees, weeds and grasses in our canyons wake up and send out pollen clouds.”
Because San Diego doesn’t have four distinct seasons like the East and the Midwest, allergens are in the air constantly. This can exacerbate nasal allergies, triggering chronic drainage and congestion, leaving allergy sufferers vulnerable to sinus infections, bronchitis and colds.
“We catch colds, not because people cough or sneeze around us, but because we touch surfaces that have the virus on them and then touch our nose, eyes and mouths,” says Dr. Simon. “People with allergies touch and rub more than other people, making it more likely they will pick up the virus. In addition, they can’t clear colds and infections as easily as non-allergic people because of underlying chronic allergic inflammation in the nose and lungs.”
Because Southern California never experiences hard freezes and frosts, mold spores never entirely go away here. In fact, local rain patterns and cool temperatures create optimal conditions for them to multiply.
Surprisingly, in many parts of the country house dust mites are seasonal as well, requiring humidity to reproduce. But in San Diego, they can be found in high quantities year-round. Between the humidity of the rainy season and homes that aren’t completely weather-tight, the months between October and March are especially troublesome for people who are sensitive to these microscopic insects.
During the most active allergen periods, sufferers can generally manage their own symptoms at home. Dr. Simon recommends five tools to help.
If you know you suffer from allergies to animal dander, for example, you should minimize time spent around pets and get zip-up encasements that trap dust mites inside your mattress and pillows. You can keep those kicked-up mites (as well as other particulates) out of the respiratory system by wearing an inexpensive N-95 respirator from the hardware store when you dust or vacuum, or when there are problems with outdoor dust, smoke and other irritants.
Neti pots and over-the-counter squeeze-bottle nasal rinsing systems may offer some comfort by relieving some of the irritation and washing fine allergens out of sensitive nasal passages and sinuses. But the stream or mist of water should be gentle, not forceful. For people who have had surgery on their sinuses, there are electric irrigators, but Dr. Simon stresses these are not normally recommended for allergy symptoms alone.
These drugs relieve itching, sneezing and watering of the eyes and nose. While the safest, most effective allergy medications used to be prescription-only and pricey, Dr. Simon says nearly all allergy medicines now have less expensive generic equivalents and are available over-the-counter. Some are even non-sedating.
For congestion that can result from constant exposure to allergens, Dr. Simon says it’s important to choose a decongestant, not an antihistamine. Over-the counter antihistamine medications with a “–D” after their name contain a decongestant as well as the primary medication. They can help reduce swelling in the nose and sinuses as well as the itching, sneezing and watering of the eyes and nose. However, they can also cause nervousness, fast heartbeats, insomnia and — in some people — increased blood pressure.
Dr. Simon says that daily use of these sprays — most are available in over-the-counter and less expensive generic form —can eliminate nearly all allergy symptoms.
“I tell people to try it for a month,” he says. “In addition to relieving their allergy symptoms, it allows them to resume normal activities without discomfort. Many people come back and say, ‘Oh, this is how I’m supposed to feel! I can sleep and taste my food again and my energy is back!’”