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Sniffle: It’s allergy season in Costa Rica

August 2, 2012

From the print edition

The rain begins outside. Carlos Cordero knows what the next morning will do to him.

He’ll feel stuffy. Co- workers will ask him if he’s upset. But he’s not feeling gloomy – Cordero just has allergies; awful, awful allergies that worsen during Costa Rica’s soggy rainy season, which typically lasts through late November. 

“You are always the guy with the red eyes or the red nose,” says Cordero, 25, who works as a training specialist at medical device manufacturer St. Jude Medical in Alajuela, north of the capital. 

While not crippling, allergies can be a frustrating condition to cope with in Costa Rica. The country has diverse climates and plant life, meaning allergens present problems no matter where one goes. During these wet, humid months, allergy sufferers like Cordero spend many mornings waking up to daily irritations that almost never go away.

Alicia Marín, a doctor for health products company GNC, sees all types of patients ravaged by Costa Rica’s allergy season. 

In reality, the season doesn’t have an end point in the country since plants bloom all year around here – casting pollen into the atmosphere throughout the day. But the situation worsens with the start of the rainy season in May. 

The climate shifts from sunny and warm to rainy and sticky hot. Rainfall lifts up dust, pollen and mold, and residents inhale it. The swirl of materials in the air can cause congestion, rashes and rhinitis in those sensitive to the contaminants. For asthma patients, the effects can be more severe.

Marín says pollution in the city from industrial smoke and vehicle exhaust also makes the situation worse. Heading to the beach is not an assured escape plan either. Different plant and flower species thrive on the coasts, and that means one’s body will have to adjust to those types of spores. 

“People who live in the forest [or] at the beach are already accustomed to those types of particulars and they don’t produce big problems,” Marín says.

However, Costa Rica residents living by the ocean or in the jungle especially will feel the harshness of smog when entering the Central Valley. 

Fighting allergies

Marín says another reason sickness and allergies worsen during the latter half of the year is that people get lazy. Rainstorms can ruin a healthy lifestyle, forcing locals inside all day. Idleness can lead to depression and lethargy and a weakened immune system. Eating habits tend to fall apart during this part of the year, Marín says.

“They forget those resolutions they made at the beginning of the year,” Marín says, “to exercise, to maintain their well-being.”

She recommends reevaluating diet. Preventative measures are key for reducing the effects of aggravating allergens. In addition to regular exercise, Marín suggests eating organic fruits and vegetables instead of foods treated with agrochemicals, which can have an adverse effect on people prone to allergies.

The best anti-allergenic food includes yogurts with probiotics (containing live bacteria) and foods that contain a compound known as a flavonoid. Research shows flavonoids act as a natural anti-allergen.

The compounds are also considered antioxidants and beneficial in fighting heart disease. Foods that can help relieve symptoms include cranberries, citrus fruit, blackberries, vegetables like onions and spinach, black and red beans, red wine, teas and dark chocolate.

For those who suffer the worst effects of allergies, pills also are available over-the-counter in Costa Rica. Marín still encourages a doctor’s appointment since some pills do nothing depending on the patient’s type of allergy.

Cordero needed a prescription for helping his own case of allergies.  Some days – the ones after a rain – can be troublesome. Cordero has given presentations where it seems like he’ll never stop sneezing, turning his talks into a discussion about whether he’s “all right.”

But he’s learned to control the problem. Cordero can take a trip to the beach and not suffer under the exotic flora. He can go out at night and have a great time. The new anti-tobacco law, banning smoking inside of bars and restaurants, has served as a huge boon for his health. 

“I’ve been visiting doctors and everything,” Cordero said. “They have done all types of studies on people. There’s nothing they can do [to cure the disorder]. They can only control the allergies.”

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