Earlier this month, Shelley Lutz was headed out on a 28-mile bike ride when the all-too-familiar harbinger of allergy season hit. "We were standing there in the parking lot and all of a sudden my nose was running like a sieve," recalls the 53-year-old Rutland resident, a UPS employee and longtime competitive cyclist. "I was like, 'Uh-oh, OK, time to start taking more of my allergy stuff.'"
Lutz, who also suffers from drop-to-your-knees headaches, is one of hundreds of Vermont athletes and outdoors enthusiasts who are arming themselves for the war against wheezing, sneezing and breathing difficulties. Over the next several weeks, tiny particles of pollen will swirl in the air as plants come back to life and sound the death knell, as it were, for clear eyes, open nasal passages and fully functioning lungs. Some will grab the Visine A.C.; others will duct-tape inhalers to their handlebars -- or just try not to breathe.
"I see some elite athletes who have real trouble in the spring," says Elizabeth Jaffe, M.D., an allergist with Timberlane Medical Center in South Burlington. "Certainly, pollen allergies can make it difficult to exercise outside, especially for prolonged periods."
Ten to 20 percent of the population suffers from allergies, according to David Shulan, M.D., an Albany allergist and fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. "In our area, the trees and grasses are the biggest allergy problems," he says. "And April into June is the season."
For bikers, runners and hikers who've been itching to work out in the warming temperatures, allergies can range from the mildly irritating to the kind that sends them straight back indoors, itching madly. Stefan Bumbeck, a 35-year-old designer and cyclist from Burlington, first noticed he was allergic while on a springtime ride at age 13. "The farmers were cutting their fields," he says. "I returned home with hives all over my arms and legs and my eyes swelled almost shut."
Though many allergy symptoms begin to appear when individuals are young, says Jaffe, they can crop up at any age, especially among those who have relocated to a new environment. "I developed my allergies late in life because I lived on the West Coast for a while," she says. "When I moved back to Vermont, I developed a birch-pollen allergy quite strongly; my body recognized it as foreign."
When tree and grass pollen and springtime molds are stirred up in the atmosphere, explains Jaffe, they trigger the "mast" cells in the nose and lungs to release inflammatory molecules like histamine. Allergies can have a domino effect, she adds, worsening the asthma suffered by 10 percent of the population and actually causing asthma in others.
"People with allergies are four times more likely to develop asthma than people without allergies," says Jaffe. "And one of the things that's underappreciated is nasal symptoms and their respect to asthma. You really have to have a clear nose in order to have good function." She cautions that ignoring constricted breathing can lead to thickening and stiffening of the airways and permanent lung impairment.
For asthma-free athletes, allergies can lead to sinus and ear infections -- plus plain old misery, says Jaffe.
Bumbeck, who competed in the Olympic trials for the Atlanta 1996 Games, says the effects are psychological, too. "It was frustrating when I felt like there were guys who weren't affected," he says. "Allergies made me miserable and tired, and inconsistent in my results."
Even milder reactions can impair performance, says Shulan. "Allergies can trigger eye-watering, sneezing and nasal congestion that can interfere with an athlete's ability to see and concentrate on their game."
The quest for comfort can be as aggravating as the allergy symptoms themselves. Most allergists prescribe medication, from heavy-duty decongestants to inhaled steroids and souped-up eye drops; that doesn't always sit well with health-conscious competitors. "Most athletes are pretty cautious of what they put into their bodies," says Bumbeck, who had to rely on three different inhalers when he was in the 1996 Olympic trials. "Now all the antihistamines that you can get over the counter are banned for people competing in sanctioned events -- it really is cheating if you use them. For a tuned athlete, two Sudafed are the equivalent of taking speed."
Shulan also points out the drawbacks of using drugs to drive away allergies. "Taking two Benadryl tablets is worse than being legally drunk in a driving simulator test," he says. "And the older antihistamines can adversely affect glaucoma and enlarged prostates."
In August 2004, after 11 years of racing her bike and decades of driving a UPS truck on dusty roads, Lutz felt her allergies worsen. She went to an allergist. "I've got a pretty high threshold for pain, but boy, I'll tell ya, I would get these incredible sinus headaches, and it didn't make any difference what I did for relief," says Lutz. She walked out of the allergist's office with a list of pills, drops and puffers.
Though she doesn't like taking medication, Lutz submits to it in the springtime, and also uses a "neti pot" twice a day. Resembling Aladdin's lamp with a phallic spout and filled with warm salt water, a neti pot is a nasal irrigation tool long used by yogis in India as a purification technique. Shooting the water up one nostril and out the other, it's like an enema for the sinuses, and is one of the increasingly popular natural treatments for allergies.
Jaffe says experimental trials are ongoing with a Chinese herb (identified only by a number), but she suggests a natural cure-all is hocus-pocus. "There hasn't been good proof of acupuncture or homeopathy or the herbal remedies on the market right now causing any improvement in allergies or asthma," she declares.
Still, Vermont athletes such as Lutz and Bumbeck find themselves swapping springtime tips on alternative ammunition. Yogurt can help, some say; others tout Middlebury's Champlain Valley Apiaries, whose non-filtered honey contains bee pollen. "Small doses get you used to the pollen so that you don't get a reaction when bombarded by local pollens," says Bumbeck, who also swears by saline solutions, chiropractic care and cold showers. "Maybe that makes me a freak -- my wife thinks I'm crazy for the ice-cold showers," he says.
But even the nuttiest of natural remedies can seem sane for athletes driven out of their minds by outdoor allergens. There's even a connection between mental disorders and the maddening clouds of pollen. "I remember a psych professor at UVM telling me that the common use for lithium was discovered by testing drugs on insane asylum inmates," says Bumbeck. "They were looking for an antihistamine and discovered that lithium eased manic-depressive behavior. Strange."