High levels of allergens causing many to suffer

Published: 9/2/2010 12:06 PM | Updated: 9/2/2010 1:50 PM

When he turned 34, Kishore Patel noticed he was sneezing, rubbing his eyes, and getting a runny nose more often.

He treated his symptoms with over-the-counter cold medications until his doctor recommended he see an allergist. Turns out, Patel was allergic to pollen and mold.

"I never had allergies when I was a kid, and no one in my family ever had allergies," said Patel, now 36, of Palatine. "It was very, very strange."

Jeanne Passialis, of Schaumburg, said she never suffered from allergies until after she had a baby at age 34. And Donna Hisson, 47, of Hoffman Estates, didn't exhibit symptoms until she was in her 30s. Now, her seasonal allergies are so bad, they sometimes develop into bronchitis and leave her eyes so teary and itchy she can't wear makeup.

"I'm just rubbing my eyes constantly," she said.

Suburban allergists say it's not unusual for people to start suffering from allergies in their 30s - a condition sometimes referred to as Adult-Onset Allergies - and like a lot of allergy sufferers, they're feeling particularly lousy right now.

After record-high pollen counts this spring, this past month has had high ragweed and mold counts, leading many people to have symptoms these allergens can cause, like headaches, itchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, fatigue, ear pain and sore throat.

Chicago-area ragweed and mold levels are expected to remain high into Labor Day weekend, according to Melrose Park allergist Dr. Joseph Leija.

"It's been bad. Even people on allergy medications are complaining now," said Dr. Dolly Thomas, an allergist at the Center for Asthma and Allergies in Mount Prospect.

This year, more adult patients with allergy symptoms have come into DuKane Allergy Asthma Associates in St. Charles, said allergist Dr. Sakina Bajowala, a member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

"We're seeing people who have never had a problem before coming in and saying, 'We're so miserable,' Bajowala said. "They were actually developing allergy symptoms for the first time in their lives, because the pollen counts are so high."

Local allergists say there are several reasons why a person who didn't have allergies as a child might suddenly develop them later in life.

Sometimes the reason is obvious - a new pet or house, or increased exposure to cigarette smoke or the outdoors. Changing hormone levels sometimes trigger allergies in women, and Thomas said you can have an "allergy tendency" - so even if an allergy didn't show itself in childhood, it still existed but just wasn't triggered.

Bajowala believes global warming is contributing to the increased allergens into the air.

"We have evidence to prove that, as the climate is changing, pollen season is getting longer, pollen counts are getting higher, and more people are suffering," she said. "There is a connection (to global warming), and this trend will continue."

The AAAAI reports that 54.6 percent of Americans now test positive for one or more allergens, and more than half of all homes have at least six allergens present.

That has led to more allergy medication on drugstore shelves. Sales of prescription allergy medication have increased - $3 million worth of Singulair was sold in 2009, a 4.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to Drugs.com. And sales of over-the-counter cold, allergy and sinus tablets and packets rose roughly 2 percent this summer in the U.S., according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm.

If over-the-counter allergy and cold medication doesn't work, doctors say it's necessary to see an allergist to prevent prolonged suffering, or symptoms that can develop like sinus infections and bronchitis.

"If you don't treat your symptoms properly, your quality of life can be affected," Thomas said.