Tony Kavanaugh climbed the seven flights of stairs Monday morning to the roof of Mayo’s St. Ann building, where he placed two glass rods in an Aeroallergin Rotorod pollen sampler.
It’s a trip he doesn’t usually start making until April.
But when he put his samples under the microscope last week, Kavanaugh, a certified pollen counter for Allergy Associates of La Crosse, saw pollen counts on par with peak season — normally in April or May.
He’s even found potent oak pollen a good month earlier than normal.
“It’s nothing new,” said Kristen Grimes of the Wisconsin Asthma Coalition. “It’s just starting earlier.”
This week will feel more May than March, but along with balmy temperatures, those southerly winds have also brought pollen, an unwelcome hitchhiker for the estimated 1 million Wisconsinites who suffer from either asthma or allergies. And with spring already nipping at the heels of a mild winter, they can expect a longer stuffy nose season.
“Today there were a couple of folks I saw with itchy eyes and sore throats,” said Dr. Mark Beahm, a family physician at Mayo Clinic Health Systems Onalaska clinic. “I think it’s on its way in.”
March’s mild weather has triggered tulips and other bulbs to sprout and buds to swell on trees a good month ahead of normal, said Steve Huntzicker, La Crosse County agriculture agent for UW-Extension.
But that’s not what’s causing our itchy eyes and stuffed up noses.
“This isn’t our pollen, necessarily,” said Dr. Todd Mahr, an allergist at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center. “This is (from) southern Illinois.”
Blame those same southerly winds brining the warm air.
“The warmth comes,” Mahr said. “But so does the pollen.”
Mahr said the early arrival means allergy sufferers will be “primed” and thus more sensitive to allergy attacks once local trees begin releasing pollen in the coming weeks.
That’s a concern for those with asthma, especially after what Mahr called a bad viral season.
“Their airways are extra-twitchy,” he said. “They need to be aware of that.”
Mahr offers prevention tips — fight the urge to open the windows, wipe down surfaces, use HEPA filters on air conditioners and vacuum cleaners — and encourages people to work with their health care providers.
Though some patients struggle to afford medication, the Wisconsin Asthma Coalition provides a list of prescription assistance programs on its website, www.chawisconsin.org.
Doctors say generic drugs and over-the-counter antihistamines can offer reasonably priced relief as can simple home remedies like saline nasal rinses and eye drops.
Kavanaugh, who’s been collecting pollen data for the past four years, said he noticed his own allergies flare up Sunday.
With pollen readings already as high as 400 grains per cubic meter, he doesn’t expect things will get much worse. But it could be a long spring.