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Alaskans suffer from massive pollen flare-up

Katie Medred
Pollen-filled catkins from alder trees in the Rabbit Creek greenbelt on the Anchorage Hillside. Loren Holmes photo

Looking out of a window in Anchorage on a sunny day in late May, it's as if the "freak" snowstorm that happened two weeks ago never occurred. Lush green has taken over the landscape, odd in comparison to the winter white we saw on Bike to Work Day. For most Southcentral Alaskans, the change would be a welcome sight, unless, of course, you suffer from allergies. Then it kind of sucks.

With the sudden bloom of summer taking place a bit late, and quite quickly, the environment and its constituents -- trees, flowers, birds, bees -- have rocketed into overtime. A glance at the local pollen counts confirms the changing seasons.

On Wednesday, tree pollen saturating the Anchorage area oxygen supply reached the highest number of the year, 868 grains per cubic meter of air -- "very high" on the pollen-count meter. For context, consider that a "moderate" tree pollen count is between 15 and 89 grains per cubic meter, and prior to May 24 in Anchorage only 2 grains per cubic meter were detectable. If you're allergic to birch or alder trees, you've no doubt noticed the sudden change.

Couple of weeks behind

"Birch and alder are the two most common tree allergens (for Alaskans)," Dr. Melinda Rathkopf of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska in Anchorage confirmed. "Usually we see a peak (in pollen count) by mid-to-late May, but we're a couple of weeks behind, so we'll hit our peak just a little later."

Rathkopf hypothesizes that the late winter and late snowfall are the most likely triggers for the sudden pollen eruption. "I'm speculating," Rathkopf said, "but we're typically a week or two behind Fairbanks -- they get a little warmer and green before we do. And they've (already) hit very high levels."

Last week, the pollen count in Fairbanks was in the 600s, but as of Thursday morning the numbers nearly doubled, with a total count of 1,615 grains per cubic meter. The major agitators? Birch and alder pollen. In Anchorage, according to Rathkopf, things are going to get worse before they get better.

"I expect an increase over the next week or two," Rathkopf said. 

How to avoid allergy hell

The Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska has seen the seasonal reaction to the uptick in pollen. "We've had a lot more phone calls," Rathkopf said. "Mostly about eye and nose symptoms and asthma flare ups."

For immediate allergy relief, Rathkopf recommends suffers take over-the-counter medication to combat symptoms. "My favorite is Zyrtec," she said.  "It's slightly sedating but not as bad as Benadryl, (but) anything with Fexofenadine -- like Allegra or Claritin -- works well."

Rathkopf also suggested some preventative measures that can help reduce symptoms. Using an air purifier -- not a humidifier -- in the home can help. Closing windows to keep pollen out can help, too, while using an air conditioner to cool your home helps create a comfortable allergy-free indoor environment.

Rathkopf also recommends washing your face and hands after coming in from outside, and if you or your loved ones have been playing or gardening for any extended period of time, a shower may be a wise idea.

As for the eyes, "sunglasses work well for prevention, but you can use a cold compress on the eyes for eye irritation or over-the-counter antihistamine eye drops." 

To keep tabs on pollen counts for Fairbanks or Anchorage visit the Allergy Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska on Facebook or Twitter. And for more homeopathic remedies for alleviating allergy symptoms, consider saline nasal sprays, neti pots, local honey, herbs, oatmeal baths and more. Visit this useful round up.

Contact Katie Medred at katie(at)alaskadispatch.com