Recent dust storms in El Paso signal the beginning of the windy season – a potential nightmare for people struggling with serious allergies.

While allergies are associated with the spring, pollination occurs nearly year-round in El Paso because of the warm weather, said Nicole Davis, nurse practitioner at Southwest Allergy and Asthma Associates in El Paso. 

But strong winds also occur in March, April and May before the monsoon season begins in June. As pollen and dust scatter in the air, additional factors in the region such as El Paso’s air quality can also trigger symptoms, Davis said.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranked El Paso among the top 20 most challenging cities in the United States to live with allergies, according to a 2022 report. The organization ranked cities based on seasonal pollen scores, over-the-counter medication use for allergy, and the number of allergy specialists.

El Paso nurse practitioner Nicole Davis

“El Paso has the perfect storm, no pun intended. It’s got the warm weather, it’s got the wind, it’s got sand and dirt and it’s got pollen,” Davis said.

Common pollens in the El Paso area include mulberry, ash and oak trees that bloom in the spring. Bermuda grass, a common allergen, pollinates from about April to November. El Paso also has plants that flower into the fall, such as ragweed and grasses.

Treating allergies comes down to cost and convenience. But a person who leaves allergies untreated for long can develop respiratory problems, from asthma to scars in the airways caused by chronic inflammation, Davis said.

About a quarter of U.S. adults and nearly 1 in 5 children have at least one seasonal allergy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How to treat allergies in El Paso

If you have severe allergies, Davis recommends staying indoors as much as possible on windy days and days with high pollen counts, which can be checked on apps such as My Pollen Forecast.

If you have to go outside, Davis recommends wearing a face mask. Then after coming inside, immediately change clothes and take a shower to remove pollen stuck to your hair, skin and clothing, she added.

Saline irrigation devices, such as the neti pot, help clear debris from the nasal passage.

Antihistamines are also easily accessible in different types – sold commonly as brands such as Benadryl, Zyrtec, Allergy, Claratin – but what’s effective for one person might not be effective for another, said Dr. Luis Gonzalez, an allergist who runs a private practice in El Paso. 

El Paso allergist Dr. Luis Gonzalez

“Antihistamines, they all do the same, but they are not the same,” Gonzalez said. “What’s important is to consider how your body handles different medications to decide what works for you.”

Once you find what works for you, such as a combination of steroid nasal spray and antihistamine, take the medication consistently, Gonzalez said. Oftentimes people stop taking their medication because they feel better, only for their allergic reactions to return.

Gonzalez cautioned against taking Benadryl long term, however. Multiple studies link the long-term use of anticholinergic drugs, a group that includes Benadryl, with increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

Drinking alcohol with over-the-counter allergy medication can also intensify side effects, such as drowsiness, he added. That’s one reason why people might prefer immunotherapy, which does not cure allergies, but helps people build up tolerance to allergens, he said.

Immunotherapy is available most commonly as allergy shots. After conducting a skin test of common allergens – tree and grass pollens, dust, mold and animal dander, an allergist designs a vial, or multiple vials, with a small amount of the patient’s allergens. During the build-up phase, which typically lasts from three to six months, the patient goes into the clinic once or more per week to get a shot of the allergens, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.

Bermuda grass, commonly sold as sod in El Paso, also grows wild and produces pollen from April to October. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

After build-up, patients receive gradually stronger, but less frequent doses. It can take three to five years for someone to complete immunotherapy. Some patients never have to return, while others return in 10 to 15 years when they start having allergic reactions again, Davis said. It’s possible for people to develop new allergies later in their life, she said.

Getting people to take their shots consistently is usually the biggest challenge, she said. It requires someone to visit the doctor’s office every week, and wait there for half an hour after each shot in case of serious reaction.

“Consistency is needed to build up,” Davis said. “If you’re not consistent with coming in weekly at least, it really slows progress. You need to get to certain doses to feel the difference.”

Then there’s the cost, which most health insurances should cover to some extent, Gonzalez said. But the price tag can be staggering for people with no health insurance or insurance plans with high deductibles.

El Paso Matters reached out to three different allergy clinics in El Paso and found an initial visit ranged from $125 to $285; an allergy skin test ranged from $300 to $695; and the cost of making one vial, which can last three months to a year, ranged from $315 to $660.

Allergy drops give people the convenience of taking their doses at home, orally, but are not available at every clinic. Though they can be just as effective, the FDA has not approved allergy drops, so insurance companies typically do not cover this treatment, Davis said.

Davis recommends people with severe allergies speak to an allergist about developing a plan that fits in their budget.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...