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Don’t touch your eyes! Pollen allergy season is back in the Alaskan interior

Birch pollen under a microscope. (Tim Foote, M.D./FHP)
Birch pollen under a microscope. (Tim Foote, M.D./FHP)(KTVF)
Published: May. 13, 2020 at 3:26 PM AKDT
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As the more sensitive residents have no doubt realized, it is pollen season again; and according to the experts, it has kicked off in dramatic fashion.

On Saturday, birch pollen counts (which are measured in grains per cubic meter of air) sat at 40 p/m3. On Monday, Foundation Health Partners (FHP) Medical Technologist Susan Harry counted 7,045 p/m3 of birch pollen.

“The world record for birch pollen was in Denmark in 2014 and it was 4,696,” says Dr. Tim Foote, an allergen specialist with FHP. This is not a boast, he says, simply something for Fairbanks residents to understand when dealing with pollen allergies. “Half this town, seems like, has some variation of allergy symptoms. Some people, you know, it’s the only thing they’re allergic to,” he says.

“During the peak pollen season –and I hate to say this, it’s not a very popular recommendation— choose when you’re going to be outside,” Dr. Foote advises. “You can follow the pollen count on

. When it’s 1,500 or greater, most people are going to have a big dose of inhaled pollen.”

There are proactive ways of dealing with this, he says: choosing not to be outside on days where pollen counts are heavy; or if going out, remember to shed all outdoor clothes when coming back inside and putting them in a closed hamper away from the bedroom.

HEPA filters beside the bed are also helpful. “The dog should not be coming in and out, bringing a lot of pollen into the house,” Foote says. “Do not under any circumstances touch your eyes,” he adds. This can trigger histamines, which cause an immune reaction in the body in response to injuries or allergens.

Allergy sufferers can also seek medical help in the form of antihistamines. “There are more proactive measures: allergy shots work,” Foote says, adding, “And we also offer birch drops.” He says these are the European equivalent to shots and that they have treated over a thousand patients with them over the years.

There is another item to discuss: common symptoms between pollen allergies and COVID-19 infection. This diagram represents which symptoms are shared between the two conditions and which are not.

(Foundation Health Partners)

Although there may be telltale symptoms for each –itchy eyes, for instance, are unlikely to be related to COVID-19, while conversely, fevers are not associated with pollen allergies.

However, Dr. Foote admits that the symptoms of COVID-19 infection can be subtle, and difficult to differentiate from allergies. “The bottom line is that if anyone in Fairbanks feels they need to be tested, they can be,” he says, and advises calling the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital hotline at (907) 458-2888.

When it comes to pollen allergies, Foote says that Fairbanks can anticipate some good news. “After a couple of good rains, let’s say two to four weeks, the birch pollen’s completely washed out of the air,” he says.

Spruce pollen will then follow, but according to the doctor, is relatively inert.

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