Wichita’s not just an allergy capital — it’s a triple crown of pollen

Wichita tops the list for all three categories of pollen: trees, weeds and grass. Climate change is worsening the problem by lengthening the allergy season and increasing pollen production.

by Maria Carter

Allergies in Wichita are no joke. Just ask comedian Nate Bargatze.

TikTok video shot in October shows him returning from a jog with itchy hands and feet. He said he could feel his lips swelling.

The comedian was experiencing a severe and sudden case of what many Wichitans live with for months every year — the worst seasonal allergies in the nation. 

More than one-fourth of adults and 19% of children nationally have been diagnosed with seasonal allergies. 

The most common symptoms are sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, red and watery eyes, itchy nose and swelling around the eyes. 

Wichita tops the 2023 list of allergy capitals put out by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

And it gets worse.

The report looks at three categories of pollen: tree, weed and grass. Wichita tops the list for all three.

America’s allergy capital 

Climate change is making the problem more dire, lengthening allergy season and intensifying pollen production, according to a Climate Central study

Growing season, the time from after the last frost in the spring to the first frost in the fall, has increased by five days in Wichita. 

However, the growing season is only a rough estimate of when plants release pollen. 

“Plants have a very limited season to do all the things that they need to do to reproduce,” Kansas State University horticulture professor Cheryl Boyer said, “and so they’re anxious to get started.”

Many people reported seasonal allergy symptoms in February when temperatures shot into the 60s and 70s for a week or more without a hard freeze.

And it’s not just the length of allergy season increasing, but the amount of pollen produced.

Higher levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide can encourage plant growth, boosting pollen production, Climate Central says.

“The incidence of allergy is increasing and pollen counts are increasing,” said Dr. Maurice Van Strickland, an allergist who has been practicing in Wichita since 1979. 

The AAFA also looks at over-the-counter allergy and sinus medication sales and the number of board-certified allergists. These don’t help Wichita’s case. Residents buy a high level of allergy meds per capita, and the city has few specialists.

Stay inside or take lots of precautions

One of the best ways to manage seasonal allergies is to avoid pollen.

“Stay inside in the air conditioning,” Strickland said.

And check that your ventilation filter is rated for pollen.

When you do go outside, the allergist said, change clothes, shower and wash your hair. All of those things pick up pollen and keep it close to you. Your hair stashes it right there next to your face.

Also, he suggested people wear an N95 or other mask outside to prevent pollen from entering nasal passages, especially on high pollen days or for activities like mowing.

Other tips from the AAFA:

  • Limit close contact with pets that spend a lot of time outdoors. Wipe furry animals off when they come inside or bathe them weekly.
  • Dry laundry in a clothes dryer or on an indoor rack, not on an outdoor line.
  • Wear sunglasses to limit the amount of pollen that gets into your eyes. 
  • Wear a hat or other head covering outdoors so pollen doesn’t collect in your hair. 
  • Shower before bed to keep pollen out of your bedding. 
  • Wash bedding in hot, soapy water once a week. 
  • Clean your blinds or curtains regularly.
  • Vacuum your carpets, rugs and fabric furniture once a week.

It’s OK to self-medicate

Strickland said many people with seasonal allergies successfully manage them with over-the-counter medications.

Bargatze’s team called in a local family doctor, who gave the performer Benadryl. It knocked him out. He was woken up just a few minutes before his performance.

Strickland says there are better options for allergies.  

He recommends people try nasal corticosteroid sprays such as Nasacort, Flonase or Rhinocort and newer, non-drowsy antihistamines, like Zyrtec, Claritin or Allegra, some of which also have generic versions. 

He advises anyone who has been relying on Benadryl to manage allergy symptoms to stop. Not only does it cause drowsiness, but it can impair memory. Some research has linked the long-term use of Benadryl and similar drugs with dementia. 

Strickland also recommends rinsing out your nose with a neti pot or squirt bottle and a saline solution. The rinse will help clear out pollen and mucus.

And if over-the-counter treatments don’t work, it is time to see a doctor. 

The first stop should be your primary care doctor, who can prescribe more potent medications.

In Wichita, that might prevent a long wait. Strickland said he was once one of eight allergists in the city, and now he is the only one.

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon