Sonoma County braces for super allergy season after months of heavy rain
Jim Rask sat hunched over an exam room bed Tuesday at the Petaluma office of FamilyCare Allergy & Asthma.
He rested his head on his crossed forearms as a nurse pricked his bare back with trace amounts of allergens — Acacia, cat hair, juniper, Russian thistle, sage, grass and so much more.
Rask, 61, a personal trainer who lives in Petaluma, took a similar test six years ago and was told his stuffy nose and red, watery eyes were an allergic reaction to dust mites, a year-round issue.
The onset of his symptoms, though, has seemed to run with the seasons, he said.
“Trees blow their pollen, I feel it in my eyes,” Rask said while awaiting the results from his latest test. “It feels like they’re heavy, like they got dirt in them. Then from the watery eyes, it feels like you’re looking through a film.”
Rask and countless other local residents are bracing for what would could be an unprecedented allergy season, the result of months of heavy rain adding up to the spectacular growth of grasses, flowers and other pollen producers across the region.
For many, the promise of a vibrant superbloom — after three years of severe drought — is likely to bring less delight and more misery.
And it’s nowhere near as bad now as it’s expected to be in the weeks ahead, experts say.
Dr. Julie Caraballo, a board-certified allergist with FamilyCare Allergy & Asthma, said the rain has delayed the emergence of grass pollen, which usually occurs in April. Caraballo is affiliated with Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation, part of the Sutter Health Network.
“We haven't actually seen grass pollen quite yet,” Caraballo said. “Right now, some trees are pollinating and they're high right now.”
The stage has been set for a big explosion of grass pollen, but it’s not going to happen overnight or a weekend, she said. Pollen counts will rise gradually, getting worse as the local fields, hillsides and forests dry out from a rainy season that refuses to let up.
The upside is all that rain has delayed the onset of peak allergy season and kept daily pollen counts low, said John Petrick, CEO of FamilyCare Allergy & Asthma
Petrick said he noticed Tuesday yellow stains on the concrete from “pollen that’s been knocked out of the air” by the most recent rain Monday night.
Still, that visible pollen, the kind that covers cars, decks and patio tables, tends not to be the biggest culprit for allergy sufferers, who have pollen from grasses, oak, elm and juniper trees to blame.
“Those pollens are not as big, they’re very, very tiny and very light and they get carried by the wind and cause more problems,” she said. “Those are the ones that you can actually inhale at a picnic or something.”
Karen Ryan, a local psychiatric nurse, was out at Shollenberger Park Tuesday morning, on a walk she likes to take about three times a week. Ryan said she often has allergic reactions whenever the wind kicks up pollen from mustard greens in the park.
She got a reprieve on Tuesday.
“My allergies are better. I took half an allergy pill last week when it was windy,” Ryan said, adding that she takes allergy medication as needed.
Dr. Jewmaull Reed, chief of allergy and immunology at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, said he’s seeing a growing number of patients coming in with allergic eye and nose symptoms.
“This is going to get worse,” Reed said. ”We’re at the beginning of grass season. What’s mainly in the air now is tree (pollen).“
Reed said those who know they suffer from allergies can take steps now before things get worse. That includes closing windows and doors to their homes; getting a HEPA air filter for the bedroom; and starting to use an intranasal corticosteroid medication, which often takes two to three weeks to reach maximum efficacy.
Reed said climate change and current weather patterns have exacerbated recent pollen seasons, leading to longer allergy seasons and “pollen becoming more allergenic.“
He said that higher temperatures and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide — both associated with climate change — lead to greater, above-ground biomass.
“The plant is bigger,” Reed said. “That means there’s a potential for more pollen being produced per plant.”
Reed said worldwide, allergic rhinitis — inflammation of the inside of the nose — is estimated at between 10% and 30%. But that number is increasing every year, he said.
“Which means the burden on health care is going to grow, with more pollen, longer pollen season and more people being allergic,” Reed said.
Inside the Petaluma clinic on Tuesday, after the pinprick test on his back, Rask received intradermal testing on his arms with small needles. The injections, below the surface of the skin, made small lumps filled with liquid allergen.
After a 15-minute wait, Caraballo told Rask the results of the testing.
“It’s only dust mites, my friend,” she said. “The only thing you showed allergies to was the dust mites.”
Rask shook his head but accepted the diagnosis. On the bright side, he said, treatment takes the form of a pill rather than allergy shots.
“I was hoping to find out that I was or was not allergic to whatever was blowing outside,” he said. “This reconfirmed what I was not allergic to.”
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or email@example.com. On Twitter @pressreno.
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