Pollen Problems

April 07, 2011

GW physician Janine Van Lancker offers advice on managing allergies.

Spring has begun, and that means stuffy heads, itchy eyes and runny noses for many Washingtonians.

As the trees bud and grass regrows, pollen clogs up the air making it more difficult for some to breathe and spend time outdoors.

Janine Van Lancker, an assistant professor of medicine at GW’s Medical Faculty Associates, spoke with GW Today about the causes of allergies and how best to prevent them.

Q: How long does spring allergy season usually last in the D.C. area?
A: It depends. The first pollen usually starts in February and can last through May. The most prominent pollen is tree pollen in the spring. Grass pollen also starts to appear in late spring, usually in May, and then runs through the early summer through June and July. However, these seasons can be variable due to variations in climate. For example, tree pollen may continue into early June some years.

Q: What are the causes of springtime allergies?
A: Tree pollen, such as oak, maple, birch and beech pollens, and grass pollens cause the late spring symptoms as well.

Q: Are allergies worse in D.C. than other areas of the country?
A: To some extent, they are worse because we have a high tree pollen count.

Q: What do you think is the most effective allergy medicine?
A: Each individual is different in that some people experience side effects from medications and others do not. In general, a prescription nasal steroid and oral antihistamine work well together. They also have prescription antihistamine nose sprays which work well too. For eye allergies, people should use antihistamine eye drops.

Q: Is there a difference between over-the-counter allergy medicine and prescription drugs?
A: Nasal steroid and antihistamine nose sprays are prescription only and tend to work very well. A frequent complaint about oral antihistamines is that they work well for some time but then seem to stop working for some people.

Q: Other than medication, what can people do to prevent their allergies in check?
A: For pollen allergy, stay indoors during the pollen season. Keep windows closed to prevent pollen from entering the home, school or car. If you have been out in the pollen, take a shower and change clothes as pollen can stick to clothes and our hair.

Q: Do you recommend getting an allergy test? What does that entail?
A: Yes, I do recommend people get an allergy test. It will tell you exactly what you are allergic to. It involves small prick tests of each individual allergen on the skin. It takes 15 minutes, and then you get the results immediately.

Q: Is it more common to have allergies in the spring versus in the fall?
A: It just depends on what a person is allergic to. D.C. has a very high tree pollen count, which is the dominant pollen in the spring time. Weeds such as ragweed and mold spores are the main allergens in the fall. Often people are allergic to multiple allergens.

Q: Do Neti pots – a device used for irrigating the nasal passages – really work?
A: A Neti pot is a great choice because it is only saline and not a medication. It has very few side effects. However, Neti pots seem to work best for patients with chronic sinus infections rather than patients with seasonal allergies.

Q: How does the weather (rain, cold snaps, etc.) affect allergies?
A: It depends. The warmer it is, the higher the pollen counts are. After a lot of rain, there’s more mold released into the air. And if it’s really windy, more pollen will be blown into the air.

Return to the GW Today homepage.