For most people, the green-yellow dust on cars of late can mean only one thing — a pollen explosion with a high alert for allergy sufferers.
But it’s a good thing to at least one person — Becky Collie.
Collie is known as ‘the pollen lady’ among folks at Allergy Partners in Richmond who know her work. She gathers samples daily to test for pollen counts.
Her procedure calls for going to the roof to collect the pollen on rods, placing them under a microscope, and then adding pink dye to count the pollen, grain by grain to determine how much is circulating in the air.
Collie’s readings, which is based on Richmond air, are the most accurate pollen count data available for Williamsburg since the state of Virginia does not track pollen levels. It’s a detailed task, but no matter how it’s done, evidence shows this year’s allergy season is shaping up to be a whopper.
Her highest reading for tree pollen this year was 4,077 particles —per cubic meter of air. That’s roughly the same size as a medium-sized washing machine, she said.
“It’s a box of air. One meter (or yard) on each side.” Collie said. “I’m sure [Williamsburg] has had yellow cars the last couple of weeks as well.”
Late last week, Collie started taking the pollen count for grass, which normally doesn’t happen until May or later. This year’s early warm spring brought an early onset of grass pollen.
“It’s a double whammy for people right now,” said Dr. Stephen Shield, an allergist at Allergy Partners of Hampton Roads in Williamsburg.
Pollen spreads in rainy, windy conditions, Shield explained, but a light drizzle which fell earlier this week in Williamsburg helps wash away the pollen.
Shield said people generally suffer from three types of allergies: asthma, which causes wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness; rhinitis, which causes a runny nose and sneezing and conjunctivitis, which causes itchy and watery eyes.
While the last two are most common, “we’re seeing all of the above,” Shield said. His practice is averaging about 2o-25 patients per day, and most people who come in have failed with over-the-counter antihistamines or other anti-allergy medications.
As a remedy, people come in for allergy shots, which reprogram the immune system to ignore allergens in the air, Shield said.
“It usually induces a long-term remission,” he said, in 85-90 percent of people, he added. One shot is enough to last a person for many years.
However, because climate change is ushering in more allergens sooner, people might have recurring allergies and need further shots, Shield said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies, and allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness.
Thirty percent of adults and 40 percent of children have allergies. In 2015, these high percentages accounted for more than six million hours of lost school, work days and 16 million visits to the doctor, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
“It definitely affects children with their schoolwork,” Shield said. He added he had a patient the other day who was having a hard time taking her Standards of Learning (SOL) test because of her allergies.
“Kids that participate in sports have trouble this time of year,” Collie added. “It’s a quality of life issue.”
Although allergies typically develop in the first two decades of life, people can develop them at any time, Shield said.
“If I had a dollar for everyone who comes in and says they moved here three years ago and had never had allergies before…I’d be retired,” Collie said. “We sit in a perfect storm for allergies.”
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America keeps track of the worst cities for spring and fall allergies on its website.
In its top five worst cities for spring allergies in 2016, all but one city was in the South. None were in Virginia.
Shield recommends the following measures to lessen the severity of exposure to allergens,
- Keep the windows and doors of your home and car closed.
- Shower as soon as you get home, and throw your clothes in the wash.
- Wear a mask or goggles if you are doing outdoor yard work.
- Avoid outdoor activity in the morning (from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.), when the pollen count is highest.