Pollen Count Is At Its Highest In Years

Across the United States, the pollen count is at its highest level in years. Dr. Phillip Gallagher of Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northwestern Pennsylvania talks to Steve Inskeep about why the pollen count is so high, and what people can do to gain some relief.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You know, before doing interviews like this next one, I'm frequently having to blow my nose. Some of my colleagues have red noses, watery eyes. The pollen count across the United States is at its highest in years.

We're going to find out why, and what the remedies might be for allergy sufferers, from Dr. Philip Gallagher, who is an allergist in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Dr. Gallagher, welcome to the program.

Dr. PHILIP GALLAGHER (Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northwestern Pennsylvania): Thank you.

INSKEEP: And I understand you're somebody who really knows the pollen count.

Dr. GALLAGHER: I am. I've been counting pollen in Erie since 1989.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you step outside and well, how do you count pollen, anyway?

Dr. GALLAGHER: I have a sampler on my roof and every morning, I climb up on the roof and retrieve the sample, and stain it in my kitchen and take it into my office, and count it on a microscope.

INSKEEP: So how's the pollen count at Erie?

Dr. GALLAGHER: It's been pretty high. It came in early this year. We had a really big increase in the pollen count, which we normally don't see. And then over the past few days, it's been a little lower because there's been frost on the roof.

INSKEEP: Frost on the roof?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Does that help a little bit?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Yeah, trees don't pollinate when the temperature is below 40 degrees in the morning. So if you get frosty mornings, then the counts are down.

INSKEEP: I have to tell you, this is one of the reasons that the high pollen count surprised me, because as you know very well, there were massive, devastating snow storms - at least in the Eastern United States and much of the rest of the United States, as well - over the winter. And I thought a harsh winter would kind of beat down the pollen count a little later in the spring, slow down nature a little bit.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, pollen's a local problem. So for example, the cedar pollen is a major problem in Oklahoma. And I met the counter from Oklahoma in early March, and she was telling me that the trees hadn't pollinated there because it had been cold in Oklahoma. And they were waiting for the cedar trees to pollinate.

INSKEEP: Well now, I suppose as a pollen counter, you must be able to give very precise advice to the allergy sufferers. Do you ever have patients coming in with horrible allergies, and you tell them they should move?

Dr. GALLAGHER: No.

INSKEEP: So what do you tell them?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Basically, there are three ways to treat allergy. One is by avoidance. The second is with medication. And the third is with injections. So with pollen, it's very difficult to avoid pollen. You can keep your windows shut and, if you have to, run your air conditioning. If you're spending time outdoors, you can rinse your nose with a little saline when you come in and take a shower. If there are tasks outside that seem to bother you, you can try wearing a mask to see if that will help, because the pollens are relatively large particles and so usually, mechanical masks will hold them back. It's just a regular, you know, dust mask you might find at a hardware store.

INSKEEP: So you walk around looking like a surgeon.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Right. Some people do that, and that can help some. But then there are medications, and the medications today are much better than they were when I first started in practice. And certainly, the prescription nasal sprays that anybody's primary care physician can prescribe, help a vast majority of people. However, there - as you suggested, there are a number of people who don't respond. And for them, immunotherapy injections are an option.

INSKEEP: Now, is that where you get injected with - actually, little bits of what you're supposedly allergic to, and build up an immunity to it?

Dr. GALLAGHER: That's correct. So that really represents a more durable solution to the problem than medication. So medication, if it works well, is just covering up the symptoms, whereas the injections actually increase your tolerance to the things with which you're injected.

INSKEEP: Is there any great difference in the effectiveness of prescription versus over-the-counter allergy medications?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, over-the-counter, there are basically antihistamines available. And antihistamines are helpful for people who have relatively mild allergies. Basically, the advantage of the prescription medications is there are internasal steroids and other antihistamine nasal sprays that really work better for people with more persistent or moderate symptoms. And those are available only by prescription.

INSKEEP: So will you be measuring the pollen count all summer long?

Dr. GALLAGHER: All summer long. As a matter of fact, I'd be counting right now if I weren't talking to you. So I've got to go and count after I'm done here.

INSKEEP: Well, Dr. Gallagher, I'll let you go do some counting.

Dr. GALLAGHER: OK.

INSKEEP: Good luck.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Dr. Philip Gallagher joined us from Erie, Pennsylvania.

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