About the time lawn mowers are wheeled out of garages around Buffalo for the first cut of the season is when the phones in allergists’ offices really start to ring.
And ring they do.
Buffalo is the rare Northeastern city that appears toward the top of a list of the worst places to live if you have allergies.
Using data about tree pollen, use of over-the-counter and prescription medications, and the concentration of allergy specialists, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranked 100 U.S. cities on how severe springtime allergies are in those communities. The study was sponsored by the maker of an allergy drug.
Cities in the South and Midwest dominate the top of the list – Jackson, Miss., was No. 1 – but the Buffalo metro area was ranked 15th, up from 25th last year.
How much validity is there in the study?
It’s nothing to sneeze at.
“It’s not nonsense,” said Dr. Stanley A. Schwartz, chief of medicine at Kaleida Health and an allergist with UBMD, a group of doctors affiliated with the University at Buffalo.
The rankings reinforce what Schwartz and his colleagues know to be obvious, he said.
Buffalo has conditions that make seasonal allergies worse: vegetation that pollinates and periods of rain and sunshine, said Dr. Andrew W. Green, an allergist in private practice in West Seneca.
While allergies, which can cause itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and a stuffy nose, may seem more annoying than a serious medical condition, Green said their impact on a patient’s quality of life should not be underestimated.
“It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of the medical profession,” he said. “It doesn’t get any respect.”
People with allergies who don’t get treatment rank their quality of life lower than others and can be less productive at work and at home because they are distracted by their symptoms or are tired because they are unable to sleep well, doctors said.
Allergies can also lead to asthma in some patients if left untreated, Schwartz said.
“It’s not a good idea to ignore these things,” he said.
The rankings are in their 11th year and were originally inspired by calls to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America from patients who wanted to know where they should move to escape allergies, said foundation spokeswoman Angel Waldron.
The foundation’s doctors and researchers set out to find out the answer, and they realized that ranking the worst cities would be better, because no one place would be good for everyone. Different types of allergies affect different people, and only a doctor familiar with your case can advise you about where conditions might be better, Waldron said.
“There’s no place you should pack up and move to,” she said.
The foundation also found that, nationally, severe weather can prolong the allergy season, as mold worsens after hurricanes and other storms, and pollen production increases.
Doctors advise people who are allergic to tree pollen to stay indoors and keep the windows closed to keep pollen out of their homes. Women with longer hair are encouraged to shampoo before they go to bed, so pollen that has fallen on them during the day doesn’t keep them up at night, Schwartz said.
The study measured tree and other springtime pollen, which strikes in late April and early May, but seasonal allergy sufferers know that as spring turns into summer, grass pollen becomes irritating, and in the late summer and early fall, ragweed and goldenrod send patients looking for relief.
Buffalo’s high ratio of allergy specialists to its total population helped the city’s ranking in the study.
But Schwartz said if there are that many allergists in Buffalo it must mean there is a patient base to support them.
Schwartz and Green weren’t sure why Buffalo would be ranked 15th in the study, and a comparable city such as Rochester or Pittsburgh, would be ranked 37th and 39th, respectively.
The actual ranking doesn’t matter, though conditions in Buffalo will lead more people to seek medical treatment for their allergies, Green said.
“They will see doctors, they will go and get medications,” he said.
Treatment of allergies includes avoiding the causes of allergies; medication; and if that doesn’t work, allergy shots, he said.
The study was based on pollen counts from March to May 2012, the latest data that was available, although those counts won’t predict how bad the pollen will be this year.
“Can I tell you 2013 is going to be that bad? I don’t know,” Schwartz said. “I can promise you there will be an allergy season.”
If there isn’t much rain, then there will be less pollen produced. If there is too much rain, the pollen won’t dry and travel, making conditions more favorable. However, too much rain can contribute to mold production, which also triggers allergies in some people.
But universally, patients tend to think that this year – whatever year they’re in – is the worst one ever, Schwartz said.
“You tend to forget bad things over time,” he said.