Some say ignorance is bliss. But in the case of allergies, at least one UNLV expert says it’s much better to know exactly what’s causing your watery eyes.
Tanvi Patel, director of UNLV’s Pollen Monitoring Program, is on the job seven days a week collecting, hand counting and studying allergens floating in the air around Las Vegas, which she calls “by far, one of the top allergic cities” in the nation.
Under the partnership with the Clark County School District, members of Patel’s team fan out across the city each morning, climbing onto roofs of White Hall (UNLV’s Life Sciences building) and four local elementary, middle and high schools to analyze pollen-covered slides from air sampler machines perched there.
Pollen and mold data from the machines, which mimic the normal breathing of a human being, is then posted to the National Allergy Bureau and CCSD websites so community members and tourists can pinpoint which allergens are behind those sniffles and which parts of town to avoid.
“In spring, it’s mostly tree allergies that affect people,” said Patel, who is also a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student studying public health. “Come the fall season, it’s weeds, ragweed allergies and sagebrush that you want to watch out for.”
We caught up with Patel to get the scoop on allergy prevention tips, common misconceptions, and a quick tutorial on why technology can’t replace the human eye when it comes to counting pollen.
Is it true that pollen season has been arriving earlier each year?
Yes. Typically, we see allergies starting in late March — when spring actually begins — or right before. But last year, it moved up to the beginning of March. And now this year, we saw the first pollen blooms in mid-February.
Some people don’t want to admit it, but it’s climate change. Pollen are good indicators of climate change because they are natural and they bloom whenever the temperature increases. Trends lately show we’ve had shorter winters and earlier springs.
Is there any truth to the rumor that honey from local bees can help with allergies?
The myth that local honey cures allergies comes from the thinking that the bees who are producing it are using pollen from flowering trees and plants in our neighborhoods that make us sneeze, so ingesting it helps humans build up a resistance to those allergens, sort of like a vaccine.
The problem with that line of thought is that Vegas has some of the most allergenic plants and trees in the country, but most of them don’t have flowers. So, those bees are not collecting pollen or nectar from those plants that make us sneeze most, like olive or mulberry trees — the two dominant ones we have here in this city — or oak, pine, sycamore or elm.
Instead, the bees are going to stick to trees or plants that have flowers. So it’s possible that local honey might help if you’re allergic to flowering trees or flowers themselves.
Does your zip code play a role in allergy symptoms?
It does. UNLV has six pollen-counting stations — five in the city and one in the desert. That’s really unique because most cities with pollen monitoring stations have only one to quantify the entire city, and we’re actually the only desert climate area in the western hemisphere with any stations at all.
We’ve found that each area of town has its own unique type of pollen that’s dominant in that area.
For example, the older parts of town, the downtown area, here on UNLV’s campus, and over by Sunset Park all have large vegetative trees that have been around for years, so you have large pine populations and huge, huge amounts of mulberry trees. People who are allergic to mulberry and pine will feel the worst effects in these areas. But we are seeing that the pollen does disperse pretty far, so if you’re in North Las Vegas or Summerlin you’re still going to feel it but it won’t be as bad. If you’re up in the north side, ash and palo verde trees tend to be the big allergy triggers.
That’s why there is a station out in the desert: It acts as the control so we can make sure there’s not something happening in the natural desert environment where there should only be just grass and weeds. Even though there are no cedar, pine or mulberry trees physically out there, we’re still seeing some of the pollen disperse that far. That could become a problem because you don’t want any of those seeds to settle and start planting and sprouting trees in the middle of the desert. It also exacerbates the fact that we are pushing the boundaries of our city limits farther.
It’s 2016. Why does your laboratory use human beings to count pollen as opposed to a machine?
There are companies out there that are trying to make this more computerized. But, pollen grains are orientated, they’re deformed, sometimes they collapse, so it’s really hard for a machine to measure that kind of structure change. If they’re maybe on the back side or tilted a certain way, those are things that a human can put under a microscope then focus in and out, rotate it, and magnify it.
The other thing I do is walk around campus and literally shake the trees so I can get reference samples to study and compare the different orientations, sizes and structures in the regular community to what I’m seeing under the microscope.
We’re hoping to ramp up the education component of our program, and go into more middle and high school classrooms to teach students about allergens and show them microscope techniques and laboratory practices.
What are some tips to prevent and alleviate allergy symptoms?
There’s lots folks can do, from making simple changes to their home or routine to contacting a professional:
- Keep windows closed.
- Change clothes and wash hair after outdoor activities.
- Use an air purifier and update your filtration system, making sure it’s small enough to capture tiny pollen grains.
- Consult with your doctor about allergy medication (or an inhaler, since pollen is known to be an asthma trigger). It’s recommended that allergy pills are taken at night in preparation for cooler temperatures during overnight and morning hours when pollen concentrations are highest (usually peaking by 10 a.m. and tapering off as temperatures heat up).