Sonoma County allergy sufferers are in for a monster season, health experts say

Dog walker Trish Mitchell pauses with her pack amid the tall grasses on the dam at Spring Lake Regional Park in 2010. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD FILE)


Once it stops raining, North Coast allergy sufferers may find themselves longing for last year’s drought.

While drought years usually mean an early start to allergy season, this extremely wet winter is likely to deliver a “bumper crop” of misery-causing grass and weeds, health experts said Monday.

A taste of what’s to come became evident to Kaiser Permanente allergy staff during the second weekend of March, which saw much-anticipated sunny, warm, dry weather.

“Those brief periods of warmth and sunshine were a shot across the bow,” said Dr. Al Haas, chief of Kaiser’s allergy department. “We started having people complain of itchy eyes and sneezing. People starting to pick up medicines that they know they’re going to need, most of which are now available over the counter.”

Haas said tree pollen made its appearance last month and will continue to vex allergy sufferers through April. Grass pollen season, he said, will start as soon as the region gets a couple of weeks of warm weather.

“In general, grass pollen is the most allergenic and it’s our biggest pollinator, our biggest crop,” Haas said. “Typically we hit peak grass pollen levels in May and June. That’s where we have extended dry periods.”

Dr. Steve Wolf, a family physician with Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods, said he’s already begun telling his allergic patients to begin taking their medicine two weeks before the rains stop.

Such medications, taken before an allergic reaction begins, are a preemptive strike that prevents or lessens the initial “sensitization” of the nasal passage and sinuses by the allergen in the first place.

“They’ll help to keep the allergic reaction from occurring,” said Wolf.

The family physician explained that allergies are normal physiological reactions to allergens. These reactions include a runny nose and the swelling of sinus passages, as the body tries to block the allergen from getting into the system.

“Each time you get exposed, you get a slightly bigger reaction, so essentially what we try to do is decrease the initial reaction and decrease the exposure,” Wolf said.

On high-pollen-count days, Wolf said he tells his patients to stay indoors and run the air conditioner or a high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter, an air filter that traps harmful particles such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander and tobacco smoke. Once you’ve had an allergic reaction, Wolf recommends taking an antihistamine.

But he said now is a good time to head off the first allergic reaction.

“I’d say start the medications now, expecting that we’re going to see another one or two weeks of rain but then a big spring bloom with the pollen release,” he said. “It’s going to be greener and more pollen than we’ve seen in quite a few years.”

It’s difficult to say exactly when the rain will finally stop, said Dave Houk, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather. This week is expected to bring another 2 to 3 inches of rain by Friday, he said.

By next week, the jet stream is likely to shift farther north, resulting in less rain for the North Coast, Houk said.

Haas, head of Kaiser’s allergy department, said last year’s drought caused an early start to the allergy season. Droughts do not usually make allergy seasons any worse, but overabundance of rain can, he said.

For mild allergy symptoms, Haas recommended over-the-counter, non-drowsy antihistamine medications such as Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec. Most of the patients Haas sees at Kaiser have moderate to severe allergies. For these patients, Nasacort and Flonase nasal sprays for nose symptoms and Zaditor and Opcon-A eye drops for eye symptoms can bring relief.

Haas said the surrounding hills and mountains are a good indicator of what’s to come.

“I like to use the color of the hills as a measure of how much future misery there’s going to be,” said Haas. “When they’re all green, most of the misery is ahead of us. When everything has turned to brown, it’s behind us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or