Capital City or Congestion Kingdom?
An abundance of trees makes our city an allergy capital to many
It wasn’t always this way, Jocelyn Calderon-Quinteros said.
“It all started when we moved to Florida.” When she moved to the Tallahassee area from California as a young teenager, she said, the watery eyes started. So did the breathing problems and the congestion.
Chances are, you or somebody you know feels her pain. Most of us praise our city as beautiful. Many scorn it with a capital Sneeze. “Tallahassee is kind of a horrible place to live if you’re an allergy sufferer,” said
Dr. Ronald Saff, an allergist/immunologist in Tallahassee. To allergy sufferers, Tallahassee’s hallmark serves as a curse, particularly in the spring.
During this time of year, Saff says, Tallahassee’s trees, including its oaks and hickories, release potent pollens that blow into our eyes, nose and sinuses and, for those allergic to tree pollen, create the kind of misery that Calderon-Quinteros described.
Trees make up a mere branch of the allergy problem. Allergens that also cause allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, include pet hair, dander, cockroaches, airborne mold spores and pollens from grass and weeds, plus dust mites — a major cause of allergies in warm, humid places such as Tallahassee. And allergies to certain foods can cause nasal congestion, wheezing or trouble breathing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Irritants such as cigarette smoke, perfume, laundry detergent or exhaust fumes can trick you into thinking you have an allergy because you suffer similar symptoms, doctors say.
You might have what doctors call non-allergic rhinitis. They sometimes call it vasomotor rhinitis or even a “sensitive nose.” But back to Tallahassee and trees. Some experts and doctors, including Saff, contend that climate change is worsening the problem of allergies.
For one thing, warmer temperatures could help oaks and hickories flourish at the expense of less-allergenic trees such as pine and spruce, the National Wildlife Federation said in a 2010 report.
Saff says he thinks warmer temperatures are causing trees to pollinate earlier, exacerbating the problem. “The trees during the winter time are fooled into thinking it’s spring because the weather is warming up,” he said. “So we’re seeing earlier pollination times and, unfortunately, greater suffering.”
As Calderon-Quinteros knows, weather plays a particularly crucial role in the lives of allergy sufferers. “It’s good right now,” Calderon-Quinteros, a teacher at Fairview Middle School, said in November of her allergy problem.
“But I already know that as soon as the weather changes, it’s going to go into effect.” Some weather changes are worse than others. Consider a wet late or early spring that gives an early boost to weeds, flowers and trees. Then consider a several-days stretch in the spring of warm temperatures, clear skies and a good breeze. You bask in it — unless you’re allergic to the pollens.
If you’re allergic, “you really like rainy springs,” said Jon Erdman, senior meteorologist for weather.com, part of IBM. Several days of warmth and breezy dryness allows pollen counts to spread and “to grow and grow without getting rained out.”
“Seemingly beautiful weather can turn out to be miserable for allergy sufferers,” Erdman said. Then again, warm, damp and humid conditions breed another allergen — mold spores.
Many suffer under the assumption that they have a certain allergy but find no relief from over-the-counter medications. Springtime sufferers likely are allergic to tree pollens and summertime sufferers to grass pollens, Saff said.
But the doctor said perhaps most of his patients complain of year-round symptoms because of allergies to dust mites. The Mayo Clinic describes dust mites as microscopic relatives to ticks and spiders that make homes out of bedding, upholstered furniture and carpeting.
The presence of dust mites “has nothing to do with cleanliness,” Saff said, but they present “the major cause of allergies in Tallahassee and across the Southeast.”
Doctors say they can pinpoint an allergy through a skin test that often involves dozens of tiny punctures on the forearm, each delivering an allergen. The doctor waits about 15 minutes to see whether allergic reactions develop. If the doctor can pinpoint an allergy, he or she might offer immunotherapy treatment to help your body boost tolerance to the allergen over time.
Patients can get the treatment through regular injections from their doctor. But U.S. regulators in recent years approved what Staff calls breakthrough treatment — immunotherapy through a tablet that patients put under the tongue.
“My patients are quite pleased with it,” Saff said, “because it offers an alternative to coming to an allergist’s office for time-consuming allergy shots.”
He also hails as good news a growing number of medications available over the counter. He pointed to nasal antihistamines such as Patanase and azelastine, nasal steroids such as Flonase and non-sedating antihistamines such as Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra. “The medications work for pretty much whatever is triggering the symptoms, whether it is tree pollen or a dog or a cat,” Saff said.
As for a so-called sensitive nose, he said, many patients respond to over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines and nasal steroids.
“But aside from staying away from the irritant and taking the medications,” he said, “there’s not a whole lot that can be done.” Dr. Joseph Soto, a Tallahassee physician who specializes in disorders and diseases of the ear, nose and throat, says some patients develop nasal polyps, noncancerous growths from chronic inflammation that can make breathing difficult.
Sometimes, he said, such swelling in the lining of the nose can lead to a condition called allergic fungal sinusitis, in which fungal debris and mucus block a sinus. “I see it pretty commonly in Tallahassee,” Soto said.
He said surgery can remove the fungal debris and mucus and greatly relieve the patient’s symptoms. Likewise, he said, specialists might offer surgery if structures inside the nose called turbinates cause breathing problems as a result of swelling from allergies.
As with Dr. Saff, conditions in Tallahassee keep him busy, he said. “We joke that it’s the allergy capital of the world, but there are plenty of allergy capitals depending on where you are,” Soto said.
McAllen, Texas, is the No. 1 place in the U.S. and Miami the No. 1 place in Florida to avoid if you have allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Fall 2018 Allergy Capitals report.
The organization ranked the 100 most populated metropolitan statistical areas in the contiguous 48 states according to pollen and mold counts, allergy medication usage and availability of board-certified allergists.
Tallahassee didn’t qualify for the rankings because its metropolitan statistical area’s population doesn’t rank in the top 100.
Florida urban areas that joined Miami (ranked 39th) on the list were Cape Coral (50th), Jacksonville (52nd), Orlando (63rd), Lakeland (67th), Tampa (72nd), Palm Bay (82nd), Daytona Beach (87th) and Sarasota (88th).
Some Tallahassee residents would put Tallahassee at the top of any allergies list.
“My allergies get so bad that I can’t breathe sometimes,” Calderon-Quinteros said.