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Something to sneeze at: Dry air, non-native plants create environment ripe for allergies

It’s a sort of cruel prank by Mother Nature that the same colorful, aromatic blooms that speckle the desert greenery during spring are stripping people of their senses of smell and making their eyes scratchy and swollen.

And living in the desert is only the first disadvantage Southern Nevadans have during allergy season, said Dr. Nevin Wilson, an allergy and immunology specialist and chair of the pediatrics department at UNLV’s School of Medicine.

“There’s not a lot of rain, which usually washes the pollen out of the air,” he said. “The wind just blows it.”

Dry conditions coupled with a whole lot of wind means there’s a higher amount of pollen in the air throughout the day, Wilson said. Because there also aren’t a lot of rivers or creeks in the desert, there’s no water to trap the pollen.

“You can be breathing in pollen from plants 75 to 100 miles away,” he said.

When he and his team did research in Reno they found pollen from Sacramento that had blown right over the eastern Sierra Nevada.

The second biggest cause of allergies in Nevada is non-native plants, he said.

“For the last 50 years we’ve been planting allergens everywhere,” he said, adding that the most common allergens are pollen spores from mulberry, sycamore and ash trees, none of which naturally exist in Southern Nevada.

And, to make matters worse, “the pollen season is remarkably long,” Wilson said. Trees begin releasing pollen in February and many continue to do so until November.

Pollen production in weeds and grasses starts as early as April and can happen more than once during the summer months. “Or it’s just one continuous, brutal onslaught” of pollination that can last into fall, Wilson said.

As for the medical reasons you might suffer from allergies seven months out of the year, Wilson said you have your immune system to thank.

When allergy sufferers inhale pollen, it interacts with IGE, an antibody your body produces, which in turn causes a histamine release that triggers an immediate allergic response in the form of sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes.

A delayed response is brought about by the body’s production of eosinophil, a type of cell that sits in the blood for eight to 12 hours before arriving at the allergically inflamed tissue in the nose, Wilson said. Eosinophils are useful in helping the body fight off parasites such as worms, but the chemicals they produce cause swelling and congestion.

Even people who aren’t allergic to pollen aren’t immune from its wrath. Sometimes there’s so much pollen in the air it becomes “just like putting dust in your eyes,” he said.

And if the itchy eyes, runny nose and inflamed sinus tissue weren’t enough, allergies have also been very closely linked to asthma in children and can sometimes cause asthma in adults, Wilson said.

The best way to avoid all of that is to cut down on exposure, Wilson said.

“That’s why a good central air conditioner is a good idea,” said Wilson, who worked as director of the allergy and immunology program at West Virginia University from 1992 to 2007. There he recommended allergy sufferers close their windows only in the morning, as most of the pollen is released about 8 a.m.; in Nevada, he recommends keeping windows closed all the time because pollen is in the desert air continually.

“The one good thing we have in Nevada is that it’s so dry you don’t really have exposure to dust mites and mold,” Wilson said. That doesn’t necessarily apply to people who use swamp coolers, which raise humidity and make you three times more likely to develop allergies to dust mites and mold.

The second best way to get rid of symptoms is to use an over-the-counter, long-acting antihistamine and a topical nasal steroid or nasal spray, Wilson said. The combination is usually effective in reducing histamine production and clearing congestion.

If both of those options fail, “it’s time to be thinking about desensitization,” Wilson said. Desensitization to allergens, usually pollen, is a proven method of ridding people of their allergies, according to the Cochrane database, which collects all research done on most treatments and judges them based on how accurate and convincing the results are.

Wilson said the shots, which can completely cure people of their allergies in two to three years, were first developed about 90 years ago. Physicians started studying allergy shots aggressively in the 1980s and ’90s and there have since been about 1,400 research papers written about the treatment method.

“They’re not for everyone — you are injecting the very thing you’re allergic to,” which can cause pretty serious reactions, Wilson said. “But for a lot of people it is the best solution to their allergies.”

If you don’t have time for solution-seeking this week, fear not: The gusty weather is going to take a break over the weekend, with the fastest winds forecast about 20 mph Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

Boulder City will see temperatures increase from 76 degrees Friday to 85 on Monday, with “generally light winds” 5 to 15 mph over the weekend.

Contact Kimber Laux at klaux@bouldercityreview.com or 702-586-9401. Find her on Twitter: @lauxkimber

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