As spring finally arrives, Hurricane Sandy may have yet one more punch in store for New Jersey: extreme seasonal allergies.
Moisture from Sandy and other winter storms could have a major effect on when and how trees and other plants start to produce pollen, according to a Rutgers professor — meaning that those with even minor allergies could be hit hard.
Leonard Bielory, a visiting professor with the Rutgers Center for Environmental Prediction and past director of the UMDNJ-Asthma and Allergy Research Center, has been working on developing research models to predict pollen counts.
“The old models are based on temperature,” Bielory said. Now, scientists try to analyze “a variety of situations. We’re looking at what occurred in the past being possibly used to predict what happens in the future. And future doesn’t mean 200 years. It means the following year. And one of the areas that stuck out was precipitation.”
Years following a drought had lower levels of pollen production, he said. Years when there were heavy rains and flooding — like what happened in 2011 with Hurricane Irene — led to higher pollen counts the following spring.
“The following year, we saw pollen grains hit all the highs,” Bielory said. “We had an extremely high count that year, and that was significant.”
Pollen counts at the beginning of April 2012 reached 4,500 per cubic meter of air, higher than in recent years.
So the prospects for this year, he said, are grim for allergy sufferers.
“Sandy brought a tremendous amount of water,” Bielory said. “So trees are basically more robust. … (Pollination) started later than in most years, because the Northeast got a lot of (precipitation), so it delayed release, which is good in a way. But now it’s back up and it’s going to climb. And when it hits 50 degrees for two to three days in a row, it’s really going to climb.”
Over the next week or so, he said, “We should have a very robust onset of pollen. Even the mildest sufferers should start feeling it.”
Unlike last spring’s chronic and painful allergy season, which lasted from the end of February through the middle of April, this year’s pollen season may be more of a sudden and painful shot that lasts only a few weeks.
“For allergy suffers, (the persistent chill) will delay the onset of the allergy season,” said David Robinson, state climatologist and Rutgers University professor. “But there’s the fear that they’ll get these blasts and everything blooms all at once.”
Raina Gazurian, a primary care physician in Stafford Township, said she hasn’t seen much of an increase in allergy patients yet — many are still dealing with the second wave of upper respiratory infections at the end of winter — but said that “definitely, whenever there’s a change in weather, there’s an increase in allergies. People who know they have allergies need to nip it in the bud and see their primary care physician.”
At Bunting Family Pharmacy in Northfield, owner Joe Bunting said the end of winter and the beginning of spring has led to an increase in the demand for allergy medications — many times because doctors prescribed them as a last resort for upper respiratory and sinus infections.
“A lot of times, doctors aren’t 100 percent certain if an infection is viral or bacterial,” Bunting said. “A lot of times allergy symptoms might mimic those infections. Rather than prescribe antibiotics they may not need, they try it from an allergy perspective. So we’re seeing a lot of that.”
So what do those with allergies do?
Lawrence Schwartz, an asthma and allergy specialist in Linwood, said anyone who knows they have an allergy to tree pollen should start taking any medications at least a week before the expected onset — now.
“Many studies have shown that if you take medication ahead of time, it helps you prevent symptoms,” Schwartz said. “It’s always best to start as soon as possible. Once symptoms are full grown, it’s too late.”
There are really only three ways to treat and prevent allergies, he said.
“The first way is to try to avoid it,” Schwartz said. “Try to spend more time indoors, and take a shower if (you’ve been) outside. But anytime you go outside, it’s going to be there.”
The second way is medication, such as antihistamines and decongestants. The third way is one he said has become increasingly popular over the past few years: allergy shots.
“That doesn’t help people today, but it helps in the future,” he said. “The number of people getting allergy shots has increased significantly. Patients are coming into my practice asking for shots.”
Much of this, Schwartz said, has to do with how several once-prescribed medications are now over-the-counter — meaning that patients have sampled and tried many of them and found they didn’t work.
With shots, patients receive an injection once a week for seven months, which is then reduced to every two weeks and every month. The shots allow the body to get used to the allergens over an extended period, instead of a sudden burst of exposure every spring. Schwartz put the rate of long-term patients with much-reduced allergies due to the shots at 80 percent.
Dorothy Diamond, of Wildwood, was one of Schwartz’s patients Tuesday who was considering allergy shots as a final measure — antihistamines having not done the job.
“I never had any problems before,” Diamond said. “Until now.”
Meanwhile, LaNetta Hannill, of Cape May Court House, has been extra cautious. She started taking her allergy medication in January — “and I haven’t stopped,” she said. A member of the Cumberland County Community College Jazz Band, she wants to prevent any fluids that could affect her singing from building up in her nose and throat.
“I got busy,” Hannill said of her precautions, adding that she always felt that this spring would be particularly bad. “I could tell. It hasn’t stopped raining since October.”
Staff writer Sarah Watson contributed to this report.
Contact Steven Lemongello:
Follow @SteveLemongello on Twitter