Allergy season seems early, but not really

Anna Reed, Statesman Journal

Runny noses and itchy eyes can mean only one thing for some Willamette Valley residents: allergy season has begun.

An unusually dry Oregon winter, coupled with several warm days in the Willamette Valley, have created a perfect storm of pollen according to local allergy experts. While the allergy season seems to have arrived a bit early, experts say it's only by a couple of weeks and it's not all that out of character, especially with the the recent weather conditions.

For those Willamette Valley residents who are already suffering from allergy-related itchy noses and eyes, here are a few tips for minimizing that irritation.

• Stay indoors

• Keep windows rolled up when driving

• Take allergy medicine before you go outside

• Purchase over-the-counter nose spray such as Flonase

• Begin taking allergy medications before you feel symptoms

• Wash hands often and avoid touching eyes and nose

• Wear a mask while gardening or doing yard work

Judy Moran is a registered nurse who works out of a Eugene-based private practice called Oregon Allergy Associates. She said this year's allergy season is off to an early start, but not that early.

"Nice, warm, windy weather just means more pollen," Moran said. "Allergy season usually begins within a couple of weeks around the beginning of March so this really isn't that abnormal."

Moran said that although she can't predict the weather, she doesn't believe this allergy season will be any longer or more severe than in previous years.

"Everyone wants to be outside with the nice weather," Moran said. "Usually during this point in the winter people are inside near a fire or avoiding the rain, but we've had such great weather this year that people are outside a lot more."

"Exposure plus pollen equals allergies," Moran said.

Dr. Carmelo Mejia, a Salem physician with Kaiser Permanente, said that while he's seen a little bit of an uptick the amount of allergy related patients this year, it's not an abnormal amount.

"About half of the clinicians in the office say that they've seen a bit of a surge but nothing major," Mejia said. "So far we haven't seen a ton of people about allergy problems, but we've definitely felt the beginning of the season."

Sitting in his office at the the Skyline branch of Kaiser Permanente located in south Salem, Mejia commented on Tuesday's great weather, but quickly followed up with a brief discussion about the negative aspects of sunshine and clear skies.

"Based on the weather pattern, this allergy season could be worse than usual, but it's too early to tell right now," Mejia said. "Seasonal allergies are all about exposure, and it's almost impossible to completely avoid exposure of the outdoors."

He went on to offer a few tips for those suffering from seasonal allergies which include not driving with car windows down and taking allergy medication before you plan to be outside.

According to the National Weather Service, nine days have reached 60 degrees or warmer, and 16 days have reached 55 degrees or warmer in Salem so far in 2015.

February's Salem weather data so far shows a warmer than usual month with an average temperature of 57 degrees — about seven degrees warmer than a typical February.

Salem's average temperature in January was 51 degrees, which was six degrees warmer than normal.

According to the weather data, there were even four days in December that reached 60 degrees or warmer, but temperatures aren't the only thing that affect allergies.

Moran says that the Willamette Valley's geography is a key factor in the prevalence of allergies.

"The valley holds inversions quite often that keep the air and pollen trapped here," Moran said.

Moran and a small team of physicians at the allergy clinic are part of the only organization in Oregon that collects pollen samples and data throughout the year. The group is one of about 50 stations nationally that collect and provide pollen counts to a scientific database for the National Allergy Bureau.

The most recent pollen and mold report provided by the Oregon Allergy Associates was completed Feb. 20 and found that tree allergies have reached a moderate level, with the top sources of pollen coming from juniper, cedar, cottonwood, aspen and alder trees. The grass pollen count was zero that day.

According to the group, wind-borne pollen from trees is the most common culprit in allergies and can travel for several miles, as opposed to the heavy, sticky pollen in flowers that rely on insects for propagation.

"Pollen counts are usually higher on warm, windy days," Moran said. "And so far this year we've had a lot of those."

She said the Willamette Valley is currently experiencing tree allergy season which sometimes begins as early as December.

"Right now we're seeing a lot of conifer pollen and Oregon ash," Moran said. "In mid-May and early June we'll really start to see the grass pollen kick up."

Right now the main source of pollen in the air is from trees.

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