Winter’s remarkable rainfall was an unmistakable boon for a state that endured more than five years of drought. But the verdant grasses and blooming flowers covering the hillsides could spell trouble for people living with allergies, asthma or other lung concerns.
“It’s been kind of a busy day for me, because I’ve been seeing a lot of people whose allergies are acting up,” said Dr. Joseph Dizon, chief of the Allergy and Immunology Department at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center, during a Monday evening telephone interview after seeing patients.
“You could just see (it) around, all the grass and vegetation. Traditionally, March, this is when we start getting busy with the allergy season.”
Allergists and other specialists working across Southern California had similar expectations — a stormy winter could lead to aggravated symptoms for people who are sensitive to common allergens like pollen or mold.
Another thing to keep in mind, the powerful rain storms of past weeks are the kind of thing that can pound pollen spores into even smaller particles capable of nesting deep within a patient’s lungs.
“The smaller it is, the deeper it is going to get into your airway,” pediatric lung specialist Dr. Leila Yoonessi said during an interview at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.
Riverside University Health System doctors Alexandra Clark and Ramiz Fargo agreed the winter storms may have created the kinds of conditions in which airborne allergens may be more of an irritant than usual.
What’s more, the new vegetation sustained by the winter rainfall may become fuel for wildfires during the summer. That, Fargo said, is a potential concern for asthma patients who may end up breathing airborne ashes during wildfire season.
“The next two seasons are probably going to be worse than prior,” Fargo said. “From what we’ve seen so far, it hasn’t really hit yet.”
Exact figures showing whether elevated pollen levels are present across the breadth of Southern California are hard to come by. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology tracks pollen and mold observations from a large number of monitoring stations, but none of those places are in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside or San Bernardino counties.
One online source, Pollen.com, reports medium-high concentrations of pollen have been observed across Southern California for most of the past month, although concentrations could dip to a low-medium level on Wednesday. Juniper, oak and sweet gum trees are among notable local sources of allergens, according to the site,
But, as pointed out by Cedars Sinai sinus specialist Arthur Wu, all patients are different. A person whose allergies go off while in the presence of dust mites or cat dander, or someone who may experiences asthma attacks because of a cold or sensitivity to pollution, isn’t going to have the some problems as an individual whose reactions to grasses or weeds result in them having to endure seasonal allergic rhinitis, which is commonly known as “hay fever.”
“It’s really like, if you have a host of symptoms during this time of year, it may be a little bit worse this year,” Wu said.
Pollen levels tend to be higher during days that immediately follow rainfall, when the air is still humid, Dr. Douglas Chiriboga, a family practitioner for Pomona Valley Health Centers said. It’s a good idea for patients who know their allergies are going to act up after a storm to stay indoors and wait out the post-rainfall pollen.
There are several ways for people living with allergies or asthma to relieve their symptoms and aid their breathing, doctors said.
Over-the-counter medications, which include antihistamines such as Allegra, Claratin and Zyrtec or steroid nasal sprays are easily available remedies.
“All these things are things that people can use very safely,” Wu said.
Yoonessi, however, generally recommends against parents giving cough suppressants to children younger than six. Doing so interferes with the natural way of expelling an allergen or irritant from the lungs.
For prevention, Yoonessi recommended pillow and mattress covers designed to protect bedding from dust mites, as well as installing HEPA filters or simply keeping windows closed to keep irritants out of homes.
Showering or doing laundry after exposure to allergens or other respiratory irritants is another way to safeguard one’s self from an attack, Dizon said. He and Yoonessi also affirmed that using a neti pot or similar device to wash irritants from the nasal passages and sinuses can be of help.
The bathroom is another place that can harbor sources of respiratory trouble. Keeping one’s shower curtain clean is another way to prevent attacks.
“Mold can also lead to hay fever,” Chiriboga said.
For those who need medical care for asthma, doctors stressed the importance of abiding by a physician’s orders and regular checkups. People with an acute problem should seek a doctor’s care.
“Patients with asthma should visit their asthma provider, if relief medication is needed, more than twice a week OR if the patient has nighttime/morning asthma problems more than twice a month,” Dr. Robert Gilchick, Director of the Child & Adolescent Health Program for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said in an emailed statement.
Children who have asthma should visit a doctor every three months, Clark said.
“That’s been shown to keep kids out of the hospital and out of the ER,” she said.
Also vital: Anyone who has asthma should never be without their rescue inhaler.
“From a lifesaving standpoint, that’s really critical,” Clark said.