Allergy season arrives with a vengeance

There may be a dusting of truth to allergy sufferers' complaints
that this season is, well, a bigger headache than years past.
Heavy snow and rain in some parts of the country have nourished
a profusion of tree pollen, while a sudden shift to warm, sunny
weather has made its release more robust. Add in the wind, and the
suffering skyrockets.
Warnings for a difficult season have come from allergy
specialists from New York to Atlanta, Chicago to California.
"This past week has been one of the worst ever," rasped Lynne
Ritchie, 70, as she bought allergy medicine this week at a
Manhattan drugstore.
Dr. Stanley Schwartz hears that from patients all the time -
every year, in fact, he noted with a wry smile.
"Literally, every year is the worst year," said Schwartz,
chief of allergy and rheumatology for Kaleida Health and the
University at Buffalo. "Now it may actually be, but when it's
there and you're feeling it, you don't remember what last year was
like."
April was a historic month for weather, according to the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Illinois, Indiana,
Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all set records for
the wettest April since 1895.
Pollen counts and allergy attacks vary widely from region to
region, locality to locality and day to day, and no one entity
tracks the full complexity of their ups and downs across the
country. This year, though, signs really do point to a particularly
prickly season.
Dr. Joseph Leija, the allergist who performs the Gottlieb
Allergy Count for the Midwest, said last month that tree pollen was
unseasonably high in Chicago and predicted "one of the worst
allergy seasons ever."
At Holy Name Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J., allergy
director Dr. Theodore Falk told The Record newspaper that tree
pollen "just exploded" last week because of a cool spring.
In Los Angeles, rain, a heat wave and the Santa Ana winds
created an "allergy storm," Dr. Jacob Offenberger said in the Los
Angeles Daily News in February. Around the same time, unseasonable
warmth had Dr. Kevin Schaffer of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma
Clinic describing this year's pollen levels as "off the charts."
A sampling from the National Allergy Bureau's tracking website
showed high pollen counts in several cities this week, including
Albany and New York City, with their birch, oak and maple trees,
and Oxford, Ala., where walnut, pine and willows are in bloom. The
bureau is part of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and
Immunology.
"It's been a very bad season so far. ... A lot of people
suffering," said Dr. William Reisacher, director of the allergy
center at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New
York City.
"A lot of people who haven't suffered in previous years have
come in for the first time in several years with symptoms," he
said, noting that the Northeast's sudden change from cold, snowy
winter to warm spring has worsened the situation.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America lists Knoxville,
Tenn; Louisville, Ky.; Charlotte, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; and
Chattanooga, Tenn.; as its "2011 spring allergy capitals."
The annual ranking is based on pollen scores measuring airborne
grass, tree and weed pollen, and mold spores, along with the number
of allergy medications used per patient and the number of allergy
specialists per patient.
Four of those five cities are in states - Tennessee, Mississippi
and Kentucky - that all had drenching springs and significant
flooding, although a number of factors can figure into the degree
of suffering.
Medications used in the past may not be as effective if symptoms
are worse this year, Reisacher said. Many of his patients in New
York have required multiple drugs, including nasal sprays, oral
antihistamines and eye drops.
Madison Sasser, a 21-year-old senior at Belmont University in
Nashville, left her doctor's office with two kinds of nose spray
and eye drops Thursday after already enduring an allergy-related
sinus infection three weeks ago - right before final exams.
"It's been awful," she said. "My eyes have been so itchy and
red, and I sneeze and cough. It's just been terrible."
While water that encourages tree growth and mold might be
chiefly to blame in the South, in Dallas it's the wind that's
helping to scatter the allergens.
"We've had heavy winds and the tree pollens were in heavy
bloom, and all the wind was causing a lot of people a lot of
problems," said Jill Weinger, physician's assistant at the Dallas
Allergy & Asthma Center, where some patients were returning for
treatment after years of absence.
Despite anecdotal evidence, it's difficult to determine whether
this year is really worse than previous years, said Angel Waldron,
spokeswoman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, which plans to
tabulate pollen counts for cities later in the season.
But in general, she said, allergy seasons have been getting
longer and more challenging.
"We do know that climate change and warmer temperatures are
allowing trees to pollinate longer than usual," she said.
"Although people feel things are worse than ever before, it's
actually because of the longer season. It's a longer time to
endure."
In Louisville, Ky., 20-year-old Jared Casey's glazed eyes
scanned the aisles of a Walgreens drugstore Thursday afternoon. He
greeted the allergy season with an over-the-counter purchase of
Claritin-D at the beginning of February - six weeks earlier than
last year.
He switched to Zyrtec at the beginning of May, when his ears
began plugging up, and said his symptoms are lasting longer than in
years past.
"It's been a lot worse," he said. "My ears have stayed
plugged up for two weeks."
Though medication can help, there are other ways to lessen the
misery.
Reisacher tells patients to shower and change clothes after
coming inside and not to toss clothes worn outside onto the bed.
Tree pollen is sticky and tends to linger on fabric, skin and hair.
He also advises shutting bedroom windows before bedtime to
prevent pollen from invading in the early morning. Pollen counts
are highest between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Kristen Fennimore of New Egypt, N.J., counts herself among the
than 35 million Americans plagued by seasonal allergic rhinitis -
also known as hay fever, a condition characterized by sneezing,
stuffiness, a runny nose and the telltale itchiness in the nose,
roof of the mouth, throat, eyes or ears.
Until recently, the 28-year-old legal assistant said, she was
feeling pretty good and thought she might get off easy this year.
But pride goes before a fall.
"I was going around bragging how my allergies weren't bad this
year," she said. "Then this week, it's been horrible."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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