- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Allergy sufferers have plenty to sneeze about this spring, as the amount of pollen in the region has reached a seven-year high.

“It’s been a roller-coaster year,” said Susan Kosisky, a microbiologist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “But when the [pollen count] has been up, it’s been above average.”

Ms. Kosisky, whose job includes monitoring pollen in the area, said an April 20 reading showed the highest daily average of tree pollen since 1998.

Specialists say the culprit of this season’s sneezy, itchy-eyed weather is the fertile combination of a cool, rainy winter and spring followed by sudden higher temperatures.

Ms. Kosisky said such weather brings into full bloom some of the region’s biggest pollen producers — including ash, birch, cedar and oak trees.

“If those trees are having a good year, then look out,” she said.

The animals and wind that spread pollen over cars and most everything else also play a key role in the reproductive cycle — toting the fine, dustlike substance from plant to plant.

John Kress, chairman of the department of botany at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, said the swirling pollen makes people feel miserable because the grains have tiny spines that irritate the inside of the nose.

However, what really causes people to have an allergic reaction to pollen is “the chemicals involved in the reproduction process contained in the walls of the grains.”

Dr. William Rosson, a physician in New Carrollton, said chemicals irritating the upper respiratory system — including the sinuses and the throat — result in hay fever.

The more serious illness of asthma occurs when the pollen attacks a person’s lungs.

“It depends on what part of the body is sensitized to the pollens,” Dr. Rosson said. “In the allergy seasons, the number of allergy patients would probably be four or five times what you see through the year with other allergies. You can almost tell what time of the calendar you’re in by some of these symptoms.”

Emily Brook, a legal assistant in Herndon, said she never had major allergy problems — until this spring.

“Now I have an itchy nose all the time, itchy eyes, sneezing,” said Miss Brook, 19. “It started bothering me about a month ago.”

Health department officials say they have seen a recent increase in emergency-room patients complaining of respiratory problems and an increase in over-the-counter sales of respiratory medication.

“We’ve been watching the pollen counts, and as the counts increase we’ve seen an increase in those people we categorize as respiratory,” said Kathy Desnyder, a Virginia Department of Health epidemiologist.

John Oliver, a pharmacist at a CVS drugstore on P Street NW, also said many customers are looking for help with their allergies, with most buying antihistamines and nasal sprays.

“There are a lot right now,” he said.

Dr. Rosson said physicians normally prescribe antihistamines such as Allegra, Claritin and Zyrtec for people struggling with allergies. He said keeping homes free of dust also helps.

Scott Aker, a horticulturist at the National Arboretum in Northeast, said people with severe allergies should avoid going outside from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which are peak pollen hours. He also said planting trees with bright, showy flowers will not cause as much of a problem for those with allergies.

“Dogwoods, magnolias, crab apples … any tree that’s attracting an insect to pollinate it is not going to contribute to an allergy,” he said.

Some specialists speculate that pollen counts will continue to rise because global warming will increase the amount of carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere, causing plants to produce more pollen. The planting of more male trees, which release pollen, also may result in higher pollen levels, they say.

“I don’t think it’s a problem that will ever just go away,” Mr. Aker said.

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