The worst time for seasonal allergies is upon us, according to Dr. William Storms, an allergist who’s been practicing in Colorado Springs and Pueblo since 1975.
“The spring tree pollen starts at the end of February every year; rain or shine or snow,” he notes. “That’s usually a bad season. It goes until the first of June.”
Colorado’s trees that shed the most bothersome allergens include: elm, juniper, cedar, the cottonwood family (including beloved aspens), and scrub oak in the later spring. Pollens from these blooming trees might be the cause of you or your loved ones’ persistent sniffles, coughs, headaches, itching, or low energy.
Allergic rhinitis, often called hay fever, is commonly mistaken for a cold, but its symptoms can last weeks more than the typical five-to-seven-day cold, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. This condition affects around 6.1 million children and 20 million adults seasonally or throughout the year.
Since allergies run in families, says Storms, there can be a problem of unrecognition. “If everybody in the family has a stuffy nose all the time or they sneeze a lot, they think it’s normal,” he says.
Allergies going unrecognized, warns Storms, can lead to lost sleep, underperformance in work or school, and, over time, can be a factor in developing recurrent bronchitis (inflammation of air passages to the lungs) and sinusitis (months-long swollen and inflamed sinuses, despite treatment). Powering through is not recommended.
“The biggest message is: Recognize your allergies,” he says. “Don’t assume it’s something else. Find out what they are. Get in and get tested. It’s not painful, it’s really easy, even for little kids.”
How do you know when it’s time to visit an allergy specialist? Start with some observations:
What symptoms are you or your child experiencing and for how long? While a cold might bring a fever, allergies will not. COVID-19 and allergies can both lead to a dry cough, but a fever or loss of taste and smell are unique to the virus.
When and where do the problems arise? Spring pollens aren’t the only major drivers of allergy issues. According to Storms, as many as 40 to 60 percent of people have allergies at some point in their life, and they can be at any time of the year from a number of sources. Grasses and weeds introduce another round of seasonal allergies to Coloradans right before the winter freeze, says Storms. Allergens are inside (pet, mold) and outside (mold, insect, pollen); they can be airborne (pet, mold, pollen) or rely on contact (pet, insect, latex, food). An awareness of your environment could help to narrow the list.
The ultimate guide to identifying allergies and how to treat them, however, would be an allergy test. These can be done with a blood draw, or skin pricks/patches with a sample of up to 50 antigens.
An allergist might also be able to assess secondary sinus issues such as chronic sinusitis. Storms installed a sinus CAT scan in two Aspire Allergy & Sinus offices because he saw enough people with both allergies and sinus trouble. “If you only treat one,” he says, “things are not going to get much better.”
A daily dose of antihistamine pills and lots of nose spray doesn’t sound like a great quality of life to Storms. Besides, repeated use of nasal decongestant sprays and drops for more than three consecutive days may result in a cycle where congestion recurs or gets worse, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For seasonal allergies, year-round allergies, and asthma, an allergist will likely prescribe immunotherapy shots or drops. These methods introduce the allergen in small doses to help the body build up immunity. Shots are typically taken once a week, according to Storms, and drops twice a day under the tongue—this method is especially good for kids who might be needle-adverse.
These treatments should show results within the first year, allowing patients to ease up on over the counter drugs, but in order to keep immunity permanent and get off the shots or drops, says Storms, the process typically takes five years.
The cost is pay as you go, says Storms. Shots should be covered by most insurances with potential co-pays; drops are not covered typically, at Aspire the cash price is around $60 per month. Families with Health First Colorado (Medicaid) should be able to get testing and shots with a $2 co-pay, free for children under age 19 and pregnant women. Medicaid and non-Medicaid plans vary; check with your plan and care provider for an accurate account.
A much tougher challenge arises in Storms’ office often: What about my cats and dogs?
“More and more people have pets since [COVID-19]; everybody is getting pets,” he says. “If you’re an allergic person, if you have seasonal allergies or eczema or asthma, you can develop new allergies. So if you bring a pet into the house and you haven’t had a pet, you can easily develop an allergy to it.”
Keeping a pet-free environment is the most effective way to manage these allergies; however, Storms offers a few other symptom mitigation strategies: Keep pets out of the bedroom at all times, clean your floors regularly, and wash or wipe down (especially cats) once a week.
Air quality/environmental concerns
Even more difficult to escape is air pollution, which contains irritants that exacerbate allergic symptoms. In 2020, Metro Denver recorded the highest number of particulate warning days (a number exacerbated by wildfire smoke) in at least 10 years, according to reporting in The Colorado Trust. Families in industrialized neighborhoods such as Globeville and Elyria-Swansea bear the most burden with air pollution, with children there suffering from asthma at much higher rates.
“The triggers of asthma are additive to the allergy,” notes Storms. “Allergies definitely lead to worse asthma seasons in attacks, hospitalizations, and ER visits.”
Mask wearing, now habitual, has proven helpful for some of Storms’ patients in filtering out pollen and pollutants. “I’m telling people to go ahead and wear their masks for the pollen season and people aren’t going to look at you like you’re some kind of weirdo like they might have two or three years ago,” he says. Other practices both helpful in the face of COVID-19 and allergy season are minimal face touching and washing your hands often.
Lifestyle changes can also improve quality of life: getting an air purifier for the bedroom, washing bedding regularly, using a vacuum cleaner with a small-particle or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, and closing windows and doors helps with indoor allergies.
If you’re still ripping through tissues and over-the-counter medication while the allergy treatment kicks in, find some peace with these home interventions, approved by Storms:
- Steam your face to promote drainage of the sinuses and airways. Do it yourself by leaning over a bowl of hot water with a towel over your head, or check out a facial steamer from the store. Monitor the temperature and time spent steaming if your child is giving it a try.
- Do a daily saline rinse to clear allergens and irritants from the nose. Use eight ounces of distilled or sterilized water and mix in one-half teaspoon non iodized salt. Perform the wash with a recommended sinus rinse bottle.
- If you don’t have reactions to these odors, smell some peppermint or eucalyptus, which are understood to be anti-inflammatory and may help with congestion. Try dropping some essential oils in your face steam, spraying in the shower, or diffusing.
- As always, hydrate and rest.