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Health on the Hill, Multimedia Stories

Kansas allergies among worst in U.S.

In addition to allergy shots, Meggie Brophy still uses allergy medicine to help combat her symptoms.

When she was just four years old, Meggie Brophy wanted to do something nice for her mom. She picked her a bouquet of dandelions. But when Meggie came back inside to give her mom the beautiful floral arrangement she created, her face was red. Meggie said she has had a problem with weeds ever since.

Seasonal allergens, such as ragweed pollen, have hit the U.S. hard this year. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the Wichita area is the second “most challenging place to live with fall allergies” in the U.S. Kansas City, Mo. ranks 38 on the list, which was published earlier this month.

In the past 12 months, doctors diagnosed 18 million American adults (about eight percent of the population) with seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Kimberley McKeon, a family physician at Lawrence Family Practice Center, said she’s noticed more patients coming to the clinic with allergy symptoms this year compared with last year. She said it’s common for allergy intensity to fluctuate with the weather.

“We see that a lot with other seasons when the winter isn’t as bad,” McKeon said. “That kind of mild winter is nice at the time, but afterward we tend to see worse – and earlier – spring, and then later fall, allergies.”

According to The Weather Channel, the grass allergy season in Wichita lasts from late May to early October. Wichita’s weed allergy season begins in mid-September and continues through early November. The overlap of the summer allergy season with the fall allergy season contributes to the intensity of allergies right now.

Some students who are used to seasonal allergies aren’t experiencing worse symptoms this year. Brophy, a freshman from Lenexa, said her allergies have felt the same this year as they did last year.

“I’ve been getting allergy shots for the past four years, so they have improved,” Brophy said. “My whole face isn’t always swollen. When I was really little I had a lot of trouble with that.”

Brophy said medication helps control her short-term allergic reactions, but allergy shots have helped her with allergies for years.

Sydney Bradshaw, a freshman from Topeka, also gets allergy shots. She said she hasn’t had any trouble with allergies so far this season.

“Not yet,” Bradshaw said. “But it’s bound to happen.”

Brophy said she agrees with Bradshaw, and also thinks the worst is yet to come. When Brophy’s allergies act up, they interfere with her ability to focus on her schoolwork. She said she hasn’t dealt with bad allergies in class yet this year, but has noticed allergies affecting her classmates.

“It’s distracting,” Brophy said. “It just makes you kind of exhausted and tired, and your nose is running… That’s when you notice it the most. Today during my biology test, everyone was sniffling. I feel like it’s in the beginning.”

McKeon said a specific demographic struggle with allergies more than others: those who are new to Lawrence.

“Obviously all regions have allergies,” she said, “but I definitely see a lot of people who are new to the area, whether adults or college students, who never had allergies before they moved to the area. I think with all the different plants and foliage out there, we tend to be a little more allergenic than other places.”

Brophy agrees with McKeon. She said she’s noticed allergies affecting her friends from out-of-state more than her friends from Kansas.

“I think she might have been from Washington D.C., or maybe up north, and she was just like, ‘Holy cow’ because it’s completely different,” Brophy said. “My friends who are coming from different parts of the country are so in shock. Gotta love Kansas, right?”

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Allergies have been bigger problem this year than in years past. Most people experience the typical symptoms such as a runny nose or cough at some point during the fall and winter. In the fall, these symptoms can be more confusing for people because they don’t know whether it’s just allergies, or they’re actually sick.

TRANSCRIPT:

TARA BRYANT: In late October, allergy season is in full swing, but winter is near. When a person’s symptoms are a runny nose, a sore throat and a cough, it’s hard to know whether they are side effects of allergies, or a cold. Dr. Kimberley McKeon, a family physician at Lawrence Family Practice Center, explains how to tell the difference.

Dr. KIMBERLEY MCKEON: Anything that causes swelling in the nose can lead to sinus infections, so whether you have allergies and that’s what causes the swelling, or if you get a cold and that’s what causes the swelling, then swelling in the nose doesn’t allow sinuses to drain properly and it can eventually lead to a sinus infection. But that’s a common thing. People aren’t sure. When it’s spring, people are like, “Yeah, it’s allergies,” because colds aren’t as common. And certainly fall allergies can go hand-in-hand with spring allergies, but a lot of it in the fall is upper respiratory infection and they’re really hard to tell apart because if you have a fever or your lymph nodes are enlarged then it’s probably a cold, versus allergies. Allergies usually give you itchiness, so itchy eyes, itchy ears, itchy throat, but if you’re not having that, if you’re just having runny nose, sore throat, cough, it can be either a cold or allergies, so sometimes it’s kind of hard to tell unless you’ve had them before or if you’ve only had it for a couple days then it might be a cold, so those are I think what we were talking about. Just differentiating cold versus allergies. But the antihistamines help colds too. If you have a runny nose from a cold or an allergy, then it’s going to help anyway.

BRYANT: This is Tara Bryant for Health on the Hill.

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