Jan. 14—Lost in COVID-19's shadow is the fact that demand for professional allergy care in Joplin continues to rise, officials say.
The mild allergy season of 2020 — when many Americans wore face masks and millions worked from home, meaning fewer vehicles on city streets — appears to be a temporary blip from the norm of runny noses and continuous sneezing.
"Absolutely," said Dr. Nathan Box, an ear, nose and throat allergist for Freeman Health System, when asked about the spike in allergy sufferers. "There's just a lot of people that need allergy care around here."
To meet the increased demand, Freeman has expanded its allergy care services by opening a new clinic. Located at 702 E. 34th St., Suite 102, the clinic offers access five days per week for residents to receive scheduled allergy shots or other timely services, Box said.
Demand for allergy relief at Box's main office simply became too great, he said.
"We had really talked about (the demand) with Freeman administration that we're just getting such a large number of allergy shot patients that we just needed more access of being able to provide them care five days a week ... instead of two or three days a week," Box said.
A permanent nurse practitioner, Jennifer Morris, will staff the new office.
"So now people can come in, pretty much setting their own times whenever they want, and be able to have skin testing ... or their allergy shots ... every day of the week," Box said. The office "allows us to serve more patients so they don't have to travel for appointments."
A leading theory behind the local rise in allergy and asthma symptoms is the "hygiene hypothesis," which suggests that living conditions in American households are "too clean," and that kids aren't exposed to germs that can beef up their immune systems like past generations were, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.
A CNBC report also suggested that climate change may be negatively affecting people's allergies, particularly with warmer temperatures worsening respiratory allergies. Joplin recorded its warmest December in 119 years last month, with an average daily temperature of 50 degrees, shattering the previous record of 47.4 degrees in 1965.
Obesity and vitamin D deficiency may also play a crucial role in allergy impacts.
Box noted he's also seen a great increase in food-based allergies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies in children have increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011, and now affect 1 in 13 children in the United States. Translated, that's roughly two children in every school classroom.
"A thing that is definitely gaining speed around here is the red meat allergen, or alpha-gal," he said. "The problem is there is no treatment for it. Pretty much the only thing you can do (to suppress it) is a complete elimination of red meat from the diet."
The alpha-gal allergy, most often caused by the bite of a certain type of tick, is a serious and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that mainly takes the form of a large rash, hives, nausea or facial swellings. Symptoms can appear two to six hours after eating meat — pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, venison — or dairy products.
"We are testing for that as it becomes more prevalent in the area," Box said.
As a board-certified otolaryngologist who specializes in allergies, "I can help patients of all ages determine if their symptoms are caused by allergens or infections or diseases that might require surgery and a higher level of care," Box said.
Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.