Why Seasonal Allergies in the Triangle Are Worse This Year: A Q&A

Allergist-immunologist Maya Jerath, MD, PhD, is Medical Director of the UNC Allergy and Immunology Clinic and Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at UNC, and a member of the UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center.

Why does pollen make you sneeze?

Sneezing is part of an allergic reaction.

Approximately 20-25% of the population is allergic to various environmental allergens including pollen. In these individuals, the first time their immune system encounters the pollen, it become sensitized to it.

As a result, the next time their immune systems see this pollen, cells in their nose and eyes release chemicals that irritate nerve endings and cause things like sneezing and itching.

The reaction also produces mucus, which causes runny nose and congestion. Some of the chemicals activate inflammatory cells, which then propagates this reaction even further.

Are pollen allergies worse in the South?

I think the prevalence of pollen allergies is probably higher in the South, meaning more people experience symptoms here, and that has to do with the fact that we have a very, very long growing season, so people are exposed to things that are flowering and pollinating for a really long period of time.

For example, here in the Raleigh-Durham area, trees start to pollinate in early February, and continue through the end of April. The grasses pollinate from the end of April through August.

Then the weeds start.

The weeds go from August to the end of November.

So in other words we have something or other flying around in the air from the beginning of February to the end of November, which really gives you respite from seasonal allergens just for two months.

So I think that’s why the South has many more people suffering from seasonal allergies.

How does Raleigh compare to places even farther south like Georgia or Louisiana?

In general, longer growing seasons should lead to more people seeking care for allergies.

However, it’s not a linear equation with how far south you are. It has to do with conditions being good for plant growth. When it becomes very hot, like at the equator, there aren’t spring and fall seasons that are as long.

It’s a perfect storm for seasonal allergies here in Raleigh.

Will recent irregularities in temperature have any impact on pollen and allergies?

We had a very mild winter overall.

We had some ice that lasted a few days, but other than that, it hasn’t really been very cold for most of this winter.

We’ve ended up with trees blooming earlier, and I think people have become symptomatic much earlier than they have in other years. So I think it certainly affects the duration of the allergy season. Pollination has started, and I don’t think it’s going to turn back.

I think it’s going to be a longer period of suffering this year.

What can people do to treat their allergies?

The good news is a lot of the medications for allergies are now available over the counter. Antihistamines, steroid nose sprays, eyes drops, eye wash kits, and sinus rinses (neti pots) are available. If your symptoms break through these medications, you can always see an allergist.

What resources are there in the Triangle for people suffering from seasonal allergies?

If your allergy symptoms are breaking through the medications you’ve tried, or if you are not sure what is causing the reaction, you can be seen by a specialist at the UNC Allergy and Immunology Clinic. Or, if you’re closer to North Raleigh, you can call REX ENT of Wakefield to make an appointment.

Either clinic can test you to find out exactly what you’re allergic to and give you guidance on specific avoidance measures. We can also determine if you are in need of prescription antihistamine nose sprays. And then there are allergy shots, very specific individually targeted therapy that re-trains your immune system. We recommend them for patients whose symptoms are breaking through the medications.

Does a doctor have to refer you to be seen at the UNC Allergy and Immunology Clinic?

The UNC Allergy Immunology Clinic does not require that a doctor refer you. They take self-referrals. Just call up and say I want to be seen by an allergist, and we’ll see you.