According to the calendar, summer doesn’t officially arrive until June 21. However, many telltale signs of summer in Maine are already present – black flies, mosquitoes, dandelion-covered lawns, and traffic from away. Along with these signs of summer, some people are beginning to experience summer allergy symptoms.

Scott Dyer DO, Maine General allergy and asthma specialist, said that summer allergies can cause multiple symptoms. Sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and even dark circles under the eyes can all be signs of a summer allergy.

Dyer said that the most effective way to treat summer allergies is to start using antihistamines before symptoms even begin.

“The first line treatment [for seasonal allergies] would be a non-drowsy antihistamine like Zyrtec® or Allegra®,” said Dyer. “Those work better if taken before pollen season starts.”

Dyer said that if antihistamines alone don’t control a person’s symptoms, they might want to consider using a steroid intranasal spray like Flonase®, Rhinocort®, or Nasocort®. Also, he said, antihistamine eye drops such as Zaditor® may also help.

If seasonal allergy symptoms aren’t controlled by those medications, Dyer recommends having an evaluation by an allergist who might adjust the medications or suggest allergy testing and desensitization with injections.

Browntail moth caterpillars
Dyer said that many people in Maine have experienced allergic symptoms after having contact with browntail moth caterpillars which have invaded the state in recent years. Hair cells on the caterpillars contain a toxin that can cause a skin rash that looks like poison ivy that can last from several hours to several days.

The Maine CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that people can develop dermatitis either from direct contact with the caterpillar or indirectly from contact with airborne hairs. The CDC notes that some people also develop respiratory distress from inhaling airborne hairs and that can be serious. They recommend taking a cool shower and changing clothes after engaging in activities that could bring a person into contact with caterpillar hairs. They also recommend raking, mowing, and/or weed whacking when foliage is wet to prevent caterpillar hairs from becoming airborne and wearing a respirator, goggles, and coveralls when raking, mowing, or weed whacking.

Caterpillar hairs can also become imbedded in clothing hung outdoors so the CDC advises that it may be best to dry laundry indoors during June and July.

According to the Maine CDC, rashes caused by contact with the caterpillars can often be treated with over-the-counter products but severe reactions or breathing problems should be treated by a physician. See maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/infectious-disease/epi/vector-borne/browntail-moth/index.shtml for more information.

Dyer said that tree pollens are a major source of allergy symptoms experienced during late spring and early summer. Weed pollens, especially ragweed, usually cause allergy symptoms from the end of August right up to the first frost.

He said that even people who don’t have allergies may develop watery eyes and swollen nasal passages from exposure to pollen.

It’s not uncommon for the children of a parent with pollen allergies to also develop allergies. If one parent has pollen allergies, a child has up to a 50 percent chance of developing pollen allergies and if both parents have allergies, the risk is even higher.

“Pollen allergies are not usually seen before the age of 2 years but you may see allergies to pet dander or dust mites even in infants,” Dyer said.

According to Dyer, the presence of chronic nasal congestion, eczema and asthma can be indicators that a child has allergies and skin testing can be performed even on infants. At least 60 percent of people with asthma are allergic to something, he said. However, asthma can also be induced by respiratory infections, exercise, cold air and cigarette smoke.

Some allergies can be deadly
In addition to environmental allergies, Dyer said that food allergies are on the rise. Nuts are one of the major offenders that can cause life-threatening allergic reactions. The non-profit organization Red Sneakers for Oakley was formed in 2016 to raise awareness of the seriousness of food allergies among children. The organization was established by Merrill and Robert Debbs whose 11-year old son Oakley died in Kennebunkport from an anaphylactic reaction to nuts. Oakley’s reaction was reportedly treated with Benadryl rather than epinephrine because his parents were unaware that his nut allergy could cause an anaphylactic reaction. Oakley always wore red sneakers when he played sports and his parents now encourage people across the world to wear red sneakers to raise awareness of the seriousness of food allergies. For more information, see redsneakers.org/about-us.

Dyer said that a new patch used to desensitize people with a peanut allergy is currently waiting for FDA approval. Researchers hope the patch can prevent people from having a serious reaction if exposed to peanuts. It has not been determined whether the effect from the patch will remain if it’s removed. An oral product for peanut allergy is also awaiting FDA approval. For more information about food allergies, see foodallergy.org.

Bee stings can also cause life threatening allergic reactions. Dyer said there’s a 40-60 percent chance that adults who experience an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting will experience another anaphylactic reaction if stung by a similar type of bee. He said that it’s important to be tested after a reaction to determine which type of bee venom causes a reaction and that desensitization may be possible. When carrying an epinephrine kit for anaphylactic reactions, he said, it’s important to always carry two syringes in case one syringe malfunctions.

In regards to desensitization, Dyer added that it is sometimes possible to desensitize people to antibiotics to which they’re allergic. If a person needs a particular antibiotic to which they have an allergy, it may be possible to have the antibiotic administered in an intensive care unit where medications would be used to treat the anaphylactic reaction to the antibiotic. Also, children and adults sometimes outgrow allergies to certain antibiotics and that skin testing by an allergist can determine whether a person is still allergic to antibiotics.