Japan’s pollen count to drop, experts say
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Last year’s misery — a cool, rainy summer — may be this year’s bliss for allergy sufferers.
Health officials in Japan say there will be less pollen floating about this spring to inflame eyes, noses and sinuses.
Japan’s Weather Association predicts there will be up to 40 percent less pollen than average from cedar, cypress and birch trees in parts of Japan, including Misawa and Sasebo, and up to 30 percent less on the Kanto Plain.
The male flowers, which send pollen into the air to propagate their species, were subdued by last summer’s cold temperatures and cloudiness. Fewer, wimpier flowers in summer means less pollen the next spring.
Also, according to the weather association, pollen counts tend to be high one year, as they were last spring, and low the next, especially in western Japan.
That’s welcome news to many with seasonal allergies, also known as pollinosis, allergic rhinitis and hay fever.
Sufferers experience bouts of sneezing, itchy eyes, noses and palates, and stuffy noses. If that weren’t enough, “it is often associated with post-nasal drip, cough, irritability and fatigue,” according to Cecil’s Textbook of Medicine.
And even if you never had such symptoms in the United States, you might get them in Japan.
“Allergy is a local phenomenon. The grasses are different, the trees are different,” said Lt. Cmdr. Dan Fisher, head of internal medicine at Yokosuka Naval Hospital. “The Japanese cedar and Japanese cypress are extremely allergenic. They cause all kinds of problems in the Kanto Plain.”
The problems begin in late winter and can last for months.
Alder trees start causing symptoms in February. March is the peak month for Japanese cedar pollen. Next comes April, the peak month for Japanese cypress. May through July, pollen from the grasses — orchard, Timothy and sweet vernal — is at its peak. Then in August, ragweed pollen hits, with mugwort and Japanese hop following suit in September.
There’s a break over the winter, except for those allergic to molds and dust mites. “You don’t want to know, but a good portion of the weight of your pillow is dust mites and skin cells,” Fisher said. “You don’t want to weigh your mattress, either.”
Although it’s believed the percentage of people with allergies and asthma, a sometimes fatal constriction of the airways, is increasing, Fisher said the number of people seeking relief has been about the same the past few years in Yokosuka.
“If anything, we see a lot of people with difficulties with irritation,” he said. “Living in Tokyo — it’s a big city with a lot of stuff floating in the air.”
Irritation is not the same as allergy, he said. In an allergic reaction, the body produces a substance called histamine, which, in an effort to rid the body of the allergen, causes veins to dilate and blood-vessel walls to leak fluids. That, in turn, causes the familiar symptoms.
Irritation from smog, smoke, chlorine or other chemicals causes a short-term reaction of directly irritated cells.
There’s one notorious irritant in Japan and South Korea, and it also hits in spring. That’s when yellow sand blows across the seas from China’s Gobi Desert and covers everything in a fine, yellow dust. Called “osa” in Japan and “hangsa” in South Korea, the stuff was spotted 400 times last year in Japan. This year, the Japan Meteorological Agency will post a daily osa update on its Web site at www.jma.go.jp/JMA_HP/jma/indexe.html.
And people who are allergic — usually a family trait — are also sensitive to irritants. “People who are allergic tend to be hypersensitive to everything,” Fisher said. “When you add the irritant to the allergies, it intensifies everything.”
But no matter what causes the allergy — often, it can never be accurately determined — the treatment is the same. “It doesn’t matter what it is. No. 1 is avoidance,” Fisher said.
That may work if you’re allergic to cats, for example, but there’s no way to stop breathing pollen-filled air. So the next step is minimization: Use a dehumidifier and HEPA filters in the house; close windows; avoid working outside or wear a protective mask; shower before bedtime; and avoid irritants such as dust and smoke.
If relief from symptoms still is unsatisfactory, there are prescription medications, antihistamines such as Zyrtec and Claritin, that offer relief without the sedation typically caused by over-the-counter drugs such as Benadryl.
If antihistamines alone don’t do the trick, doctors often add a decongestant, Fisher said, such as pseudofed.
Even better, Fisher said, are steroid nasal sprays, which don’t just treat the symptoms, but actually prevent the allergic reaction.
“The good news is there are large variety of effective treatments,” he said. “You don’t have to suffer anymore.”