Rim Allergy Hazard Exceeds That In Midwest

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For those fortunate non-sufferers among us who doubt that a pristine place like Payson has a serious problem with allergies, Dr. Peter Zonakis would beg to differ.

Zonakis, an ear, nose and throat specialist, moved his practice to Payson from Indiana 18 months ago. He didn't know what he was getting into.

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Dr. Peter Zonakis examines a patient. "Most allergen symptoms are in the ear, nose and throat areas -- itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, stuffy nose," he said. Why does one person develop allergies and not another? "It's individual genetics, plain and simple."

"Before I came here, many lay people and doctors told me about allergies in Arizona," he said. "I just politely nodded to them, because I thought I was in an area of the country that was real bad and it couldn't possibly be that bad in Arizona.

"After being here for a year-and-a-half, I can honestly say that I've seen people with much more difficult allergy problems than those in the Midwest."

But Payson? Zonakis tells a story about the national allergy conferences he regularly attends.

"At every one, they would show a slide of a car with a windshield that was covered with pollen," he said. "Practicing in the Midwest, I thought the slide was almost a joke -- it couldn't be real.

"Lo and behold, I find myself living in Payson -- the place that they probably took that slide."

And if he still doesn't have you convinced, Zonakis made this observation during our interview last Thursday:

"Today, in the entire United States, the highest pollen count is between Prescott and Payson," he said. "Tomorrow, who knows. It might be Atlanta. But today, it's us."

While people can be allergic to a lot of things, the current culprits in Payson are junipers and mountain cedars.

"The junipers have been pollinating for the last month, in measurable quantities since Valentine's Day, and it's going to remain that way until late April or early May," Zonakis said. "You can see it with people and their symptoms -- itchy eyes, watery eyes, stuffy noses, clear, drippy drainage from the nose, itchy throats."

While this is the worst time of the year for allergies in Payson, it's not, by any means, the only time.

"We have the other seasons too," Zonakis said. "We have grasses from early spring to mid-summer, then weeds from mid- summer to the first frost. So if you have someone who is allergic to some of the trees, some of the grasses, and some of the weeds, they've got a season that can span 9 or 10 months out of the year.

"You can also be allergic to certain foods; animals, especially cats, dogs and horses; and to things like molds and dust mites -- substances and creatures that know no season."

But there are a couple of up sides -- allergies are, as a rule, not fatal, and there are things you and your doctor can do to minimize their impact on your life.

"Allergies are usually a quality of life medical problem," Zonakis said. "When they've run through so many Kleenexes, when their head has been so stuffy, when their eyes have been so watery and itchy, that's usually when they come to a doctor for medical management."

Over-the-counter medications can be effective, but a major problem, according to Zonakis, is that many of them make you drowsy.

"Since allergy treatment is a matter of quality of life, you hate to trade a drippy nose and watery eyes for being so drowsy that you can't go to work anyway," he said. "One over-the-counter medication that won't make people drowsy is Claritin, which used to be a prescription."

If you don't get the level of relief you want with such remedies, an appointment with an allergy specialist like Zonakis is probably the next step. Chances are your doctor will test you to find what specific substances you're allergic to.

"When we test somebody, we can determine when that pollen season is, so at least we can give people a reasonable idea about what time of year is their worst," Zonakis said. "That way, they can at least be prepared to load up on medicine, or be prepared to take a vacation. Avoiding what you're allergic to is always the very first step."

If that's impossible, the next step is prescription medication -- an antihistamine or nasal spray. In severe cases, a series of allergy shots or drops placed under the tongue can provide long-term relief.

"These are the two forms of what we call immuno-therapy," Zonakis said. "The shots are more common in the U.S., but the drops have been around for several years in Europe."

Both the shots and drops provide a low dosage of the specific allergens that affect you in order to build an immunity. Zonakis prefers the shots because they tend to work faster, but he prescribes the drops for some children and for patients who live a great distance from his office."

"It's difficult to tell somebody to come in and get a shot on a regular basis when they live over an hour away," he said.

Immuno-therapy treatment can run for several years, but the relief can last 10, 20, even 30 years.

"They eventually wear off," Zonakis said. "It's not unusual to see an adult who as a child had allergy shots, did very well, it's been 25 years, and now the symptoms are coming back. Fortunately we can repeat the treatment."

It might seem simpler to just move to another part of the country, but it's really not -- at least as a long-term solution.

"You can run away from your allergies for a short time," Zonakis said. "Everybody knows about people from the Midwest who move to Arizona because it's good for their allergies, and for a couple years they're doing pretty good and feel they've moved to the promised land.

"But then they become allergic to the different plants that grow here -- the palo verde tree, the juniper, the mountain cedar, a lot of things that just aren't found in large numbers in other parts of the country."

Besides, Zonakis points out, the Rim country has a lot going for it, especially its clean air.

"We have the cleanest air in the U.S. from an industrial point of view and an ozone point of view, but because we've got things growing on the ground and on the mountains we still deal with all of those allergy problems," he said. "But ask people if they would move away from Payson, and most would say, ‘No, not to live in Detroit in the winter.

Since virtually every area of the country has its seasonal allergy issues, Payson's other pluses make a big difference.

"The weather is better, the air is cleaner, so the quality of life is still much better," Zonakis said.

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