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Washingtoniana: Allergy City

In this week’s edition of Washingtoniana—our Thursday feature where we collect your questions about Washington and do some sleuthing to find the answers—we find out why people in Washington seem to get more allergies than elsewhere, even if they weren’t a

Pollen, pollen everywhere.

“I’ve heard that the reason people get so many allergies in DC that they’ve never had before is because the embassies all import their native floral and fauna and it affects people. Is there any truth to that?” —Mandy

In 2005, Ken Adelman interviewed an allergist for The Washingtonian to figure out why locals sneeze so much. One reason people with fall and spring pollen allergies have a difficult time in Washington is because the area has a high rate of asthma, according to Dr. Howard Boltansky.

“Between one-fifth and one-fourth of Americans have some type of allergy—Washington has a slightly higher proportion per population,” he said. Some people inherit allergies from their parents, but 10 to 15 percent of people develop them naturally. With the high rate of asthma in inner cities, Boltansky explained, many residents form life-threatening allergic asthma because they don’t have access to primary-care physicians, allergists, or pulmonary doctors.

Additionally, Washington has more than 230,000 acres of parkland and gardens, according to Washington.org. Boltansky said that because DC has more grass and trees than other cities such as New York, there’s a higher pollen count, which makes allergies more prevalent. He said that pollen counts in the spring are the highest of any season in this area. In recent years, counts have been up to 50 times more than normal, which means people who aren’t even allergic are affected. Ragweed affects allergies until the first frost, and mold and dust allergies endure year-round but seem worse in the winter because people spend more time in the heated indoors.

While embassies might import native floral and fauna, that’s not the cause of new allergy issues. After spending a few years exposed to the spring and fall pollen, Boltansky said, people who move to Washington and didn’t have allergies before will develop them. Your body can learn to be allergic to something from repeated exposure.

To keep the itchy eyes and sniffly noses away, Boltansky prescribed a few remedies: reduce dust-collecting items, especially in the bedroom, try a high-efficiency particulate air filter, make sure air-conditioner filters are kept clean during warmer months, and ask your office manager to check the carpets for dust mites.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send an email along with your name and place of residence to eleaman@washingtonian.com. We'll try to answer your question in an upcoming column.

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