Allergy alert: Historic levels of grass pollen headed this way

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Maria Gonzalez is allergic to grass, trees and her cats, Benita and Bonita.

That’s why she went to FamilyCare Allergy & Asthma in Santa Rosa on Wednesday morning for her monthly injection.

The 35-year-old didn’t flinch as the needle entered her right shoulder. That fleeting sting is a small price to pay, she believes, to avoid the alternative: sneezing, itchy eyes and runny nose.

Things are about to get much busier here and at allergists’ offices across the North Bay. A combination of the extremely wet rainy season and the current stretch of sunny, warm weather is producing a bumper crop of grass pollen.

“I think it’s going to be historically heavy, based on the growth I’ve seen,” said Dr. Josh Jacobs of the Allergy & Asthma Group of the Bay Area. “Grass follows the rainfall of the same year. If we’ve had a lot of rainfall, we’re going to have a lot of grass.”

For people who are “grass allergic,” Jacobs said, the upcoming season is shaping up to be “full-on brutal, probably the worst I’ve seen in 10 years.”

Recent rains helped “pound the pollen down out of the air,” said Dr. Maria Petrick, who practices at FamilyCare Allergy & Asthma, “but now it’s just going to town.”

The waiting room Wednesday was crowded. “We have a lot of kids” as patients, said self-described “shot nurse” Tanya Fromm at FamilyCare Allergy. “Our busiest time is when they get out of school.”

While Petrick expects grass pollen levels will abate by July 4, the long-term outlook for allergy sufferers isn’t promising. As climate change causes higher temperatures in California, the growing season gets longer.

As a result, she said, “Poison oak’s getting worse, poison ivy’s getting worse, pollen’s getting more virulent.”

All this suffering is based on a misunderstanding within the human body, which detects pollen and perceives it as a threat.

“In reality, that’s a mistake,” said Dr. Ken Kurtz, a Santa Rosa allergist affiliated with the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group. “That’s what an allergy is — when the immune system has a reaction against something it didn’t need to have a reaction against.”

In developing countries, Petrick said, allergies are far less common.

In these places, people are fighting off parasites and things like that in the body.

Allergies are the price more developed countries pay for having eradicated those microbes and diseases. That price is especially high in the Bay Area, Kurtz said.

“We have a wide variety of natural, naturalized, introduced, ornamental and agricultural species,” he said. “We also have (sufficient) humidity dust mite and mold growth, and plenty of people around to keep pets, as well. We got it all.”

For those prone to grass allergies, doctors recommend taking over-the-counter medication — Sudafed, Claritin or Zyrtec, for example — before they get slammed with symptoms.

“The pollen is already in the air,” said Phillip Jordan, a salesman in Windsor, “so I’ve already started with my over-the-counter meds.

“I’ve found that I have to get a handle on it early. Once the pollen takes hold in your system, it can take control of your day,” Jordan said.

Those seeking long-term relief often turn to allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, the treatment provided by Petrick at FamilyCare Allergy & Asthma. After undergoing a skin test to determine what they’re allergic to, patients are injected with gradually increasing doses of that allergen. Their immune system, as a result, becomes less sensitive to it.

Leni Ortega took that skin test, which is how she knows she’s allergic to juniper trees and three kinds of grasses. But she’s not interested in immunotherapy and the three- to-five-year regimen of injections it entails.

“I just rough it and take Claritin,” said Ortega, an advocate for victims of sexual assault for Verity, a Santa Rosa nonprofit.

As she knows, allergies aren’t limited to humans. Following hikes with her three dogs, Ortega has noticed, among other symptoms, that their paws have been red and swollen. Her remedy: post-hike oatmeal and green tea “paw soaks,” rather than the Benadryl suggested by her vet.

Allergy sufferers seeking more holistic, alternative solutions have plenty of options, too.

“Chinese medicine is really great at addressing” allergies, “through a combination of things like acupuncture and different Chinese herbs,” said Dr. Erin Martin, of the Sutter Institute for Health and Healing in Santa Rosa.

Certain foods make seasonal allergies worse, said Martin, citing alcohol, peanuts, sugar, processed foods, wheat and chocolate. She recommends eating local honey to reduce symptoms, and advises allergy-prone patients to “eat a rainbow” of colorful vegetables and fruits daily.

When all else fails, allergist Jacobs said, hope for more blazing hot days, which will at long last kill the grass, “and we’ll get a little relief.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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