Fall is peak allergy season for some Chicagoans

Dogs, cats, pollen, dust, seafood - Chicago-area Angie's List member Sherri Hines says it seems like she's allergic to everything. But seasonal allergies hit hardest. "Fall is my worst time. I'm more allergic to molds than anything else," says Hines, who lives in the leafy suburb of Streamwood, Ill.

Local mold counts usually peak in October, following the short but formidable ragweed season. A study released in May by one of the nation's largest labs, Quest Diagnostics, ranked Chicago No. 6 of 30 major metropolitan areas for residents' sensitization to ragweed - another thing that triggers Hines' allergies. So while spring gets the red nose for high pollen counts, late summer and fall prove to be no picnic for Windy City allergy sufferers, either.

"In our allergy clinic, we're busy year-round," says Dr. Anju Peters, a highly rated allergist at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation, a multi-specialty practice in Chicago. In addition to perennial food and pet allergies, Peters says allergens such as dust mites persist indoors when temperatures cool.

The source of environmental allergies in Chicago vary from greenery and weeds to cockroach infestations in rundown housing, Peters says. Air pollution can also act as an irritant, aggravating allergies, says Dr. Paul Kentor, a highly rated allergist based in Evanston.

Hines, who suddenly developed allergies five years ago, thought she might be dying when what turned out to be allergy-induced asthma left her gasping for breath. She's since regained some breathing capacity, and sees highly rated allergist Dr. Sonali Majmudar in Hoffman Estates, Ill., for allergy shots to build her body's tolerance to allergens. "I no longer feel like I'm dying," Hines says, though she still struggles with breathing problems.

Many people with mild allergies find relief from over-the-counter remedies or drugs prescribed by primary care doctors. But for persistent symptoms, experts advise seeing an allergist and getting tested. Insurance typically covers this; however, for those paying out of pocket, Kentor says, an initial in-depth consult usually costs about $250 and testing ranges from $300 to $500, depending on the number given. Sometimes, testing reveals allergies aren't the problem. Otherwise, three key approaches to treating allergies involve environmental controls, such as using an air filter or staying indoors when pollen counts are high, and taking medications and allergy shots.

Angie's List member Bob Sabath has lived and worked in and around Chicago most of his life and still drives to see Kentor for his allergies, despite moving to Somers, Wis., for semi-retirement. Besides taking medication, Sabath now lives on Lake Michigan, in part, to mitigate his allergies. "Generally, being closer to Lake Michigan seems to help," he says, attributing it to the Great Lake's cooling, humidifying effect.

"The lake can be protective," agrees Kentor, particularly if the wind is blowing from the east, over the water. But every "treatment" has its limits. This lake effect, he says, doesn't hold farther inland, or work as well if the wind is blowing out, instead of in.

Visit Angie's List for consumer reviews on highly rated allergists in the Chicago area.

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