America's Most Allergic Cities: Spring 2011

U.S. News & World Report

America's Most Allergic Cities: Spring 2011

For many, spring signifies rebirth and new beginnings; after a dark, frigid winter, there are gentle breezes, warm sunshine, blooming flowers and budding trees. But for some unlucky others, spring is a hateful season filled with much sneezing, dripping noses, itchy eyes, scratchy throats and headaches. The usual culprit: pollen.

But what exactly is pollen? It's a very fine powder emitted by plants like grass, weeds and trees -- which is then carried by the wind or insects like bees -- to fertilize other plants. And when we ingest it, it causes our immune systems to freak out, which in turn causes all those irritating symptoms. 

Each year, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) ranks 100 U.S. cities that give allergy sufferers the most springtime misery. The foundation bases its rankings on three factors: pollen scores (the number of particles in a square meter of air from grass, tree and wood pollen as well as mold spores -- eww!), the number of allergy medications used per patient and the number of allergists per patient.

If you find yourself in one of these 10 unlucky cities this spring, don't fear. Although you can't escape the yellow-green torture dust, you can still enjoy spring thanks to these cities' indoor attractions. And in case your city isn't listed, you can check the pollen count stats here with the Weather Channel's nifty PollenCast tool.

[See a photo recap of America's Most Allergic Cities]

Pity the students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison: Their final exams coincide with the springtime allergy season. Madison's worst pollen offenders are trees, particularly the ash, willow and mulberry trees. Many of this collegiate city's attractions are located outdoors, but we suggest saving those for later. Instead, visit an indoor attraction like the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

McAllen, with a population of about 132,000, earns the ninth place in the AAFA's allergy rankings. Grass pollen is the bane of many a Texan's existence, but trees are also partially to blame. To be honest, McAllen doesn't boast too many inside attractions to keep hay fever sufferers occupied. So we recommend heading about 80 miles east to the beach at South Padre Island. Beaches are supposed to be relatively pollen-free.

Richmond -- which played a significant role during the Revolutionary and Civil wars -- is again making history with its pollen counts. The pollen count for grass is typically high, but the count for the trees is even higher. Leave Richmond's Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden for days with lower pollen counts (about 0 to 14 particles per cubic meter) and visit the indoor Virginia Capitol Building, the Virginia Historical Society and the Museum of the Confederacy during the high allergy season.

Antihistamines are no doubt in high demand in Dayton, Ohio since its grass and trees are very active in emitting pollen. But you can limit the allergens' chances of ensnaring you by keeping your doors and windows tightly closed. Still, it'd be a shame to be a shut-in during spring; do get out of the house, but stick to indoor attractions like the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery. Leave RiverScape MetroPark and Carillon Historical Park for the summertime.

It's been a tough year for Alabamans with their state's deadly tornadoes and the much less serious (though definitely annoying) allergies of Birmingham. Grass -- especially the Virginia Beardgrass varietal, according to the Weather Channel -- causes locals to habitually itch, sneeze and pop allergy pills. But instead of moping in allergy misery, they can escape the wrath of pollen inside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Many of Chattanooga's attractions are out of doors -- including Rock City atop Lookout Mountain and Coolidge Park -- and that's a bad thing for allergy sufferers since the grass pollen counts are super high this year. Instead, you can visit the fishes at the pretty awesome Tennessee Aquarium, though you might want to skip the River Gorge Explorer. For those with hay fever, this two-hour cruise down the Chattanooga River could make you hate rather than appreciate nature (pollen is airborne).

Could the Magnolia State's flower and tree -- the beautiful magnolia -- actually make its residents sick? No! The magnolia tree is actually a "friend" to allergy sufferers, according to the AAFA. But, regardless, according to this ranking, Jackson is the country's fourth-most challenging city to live in or visit if you have spring allergies. Grass is its top transgressor; unfortunately that means that those with allergies should probably not visit the grassy knolls of the Mynelle Gardens and the Jackson Zoological Park. But the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science and the Russell C. Davis Planetarium/Ronald E. McNair Space Theatre are good indoor alternatives.

According to the Weather Channel, oleander is one of North Carolina's major allergy triggers. Those with itchy eyes and runny noses should avoid this flowering shrub at all costs. (If ingested, it's even poisonous!) Other than oleander, pollen from grass is the biggest problem here. Rolling down grassy hills probably isn't a good springtime amusement. But luckily, Charlotte offers many other alternatives, from the Billy Graham Library to The NASCAR Hall of Fame to The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.

This year, Louisville is experiencing high levels of both grass and tree pollen. "Luhl-ville" allergy sufferers should keep their windows closed to prevent the yellow dust from settling in their homes and up their noses. Yes, electric bills will be higher, but hopefully post-nasal drip will be lessened. If you're looking for some fun pollen-free attractions, check out the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory as well as the Speed Art Museum, which hangs works by Rembrandt, Picasso and others.

The Volunteer State is having a tough year. Not only has Tennessee experienced nearly 50 feet of floodwaters in Memphis, but it also has two cities topping the charts for allergies: Chattanooga at number five and Knoxville at the number one spot on the list of worst U.S. cities for allergies. This city's trees are the main offenders, namely its ash, pine and mulberry trees, so don't plan any picnics under these. Instead, you might plan a visit to the Frank H. McClung Museum (exhibits range in theme from Ancient Egypt to Tennessee freshwater mussels), or you take a factory tour of the Yee-Haw Industries printing press.

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