Monday, March 22, 1999

Shed a tear for a sneezer and his beezer

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Whew! We dodged another bullet. Winter has bitten the dust. Spring officially checked in over the weekend.

        Time to put up the snow shovels. Have to wax the runners on the Flexible Flyer sled so they won't rust during the off-season.

        Now it's time to switch fears.

        Out with the White Death.

        In with the Silent Sinus Killer, spring allergies.

        Some people — and you know who you are — don't wake up every morning with swollen eyes that need to be propped open with toothpicks, noses as red as Rudolph's and a postnasal drip rivaling the falls at Niagara.

        You are the lucky ones. The normal ones. The fortunate people. You can frolic outdoors and say: “Ah, Spring.” I can't even look at a calendar for March without getting stuffed up. Or having tears gush from my eyes.

        Lucky people take deep breaths of the sweet, spring air. They savor the faint scents of flowers about to bloom. They smile when they see the red buds of maple trees pop out on the branches.

        Not me. Spring makes me shudder and run for a box of extra-strength nose wipes. And this is after taking the same allergy pills Joan Lunden sells on TV.

        I have a distant memory of what spring smells like. But it lasts about half a whiff before I start wheezing.

        If I stick my beezer outside and take even one small sniff, I go “Ah” followed by a “choo!” I do this about 10 or 12 times in row. I'm a serial sneezer.

        And I curse the pollen in the air.

        “Watch your mouth,” warned John Caruso, a professor of plants and such at the University of Cincinnati. “Pollen grains are beautiful little packets of DNA.”

        Professor Caruso listened to my rant on pollen. Then he pulled a pop quiz on me.

        “Which is correct?” he asked:

        “A. Did plants evolve to be nasty to human noses?”


        “B. Did plants evolve over these millions of years to inspire recognition factors for, if you'll pardon the expression, a plant's male unit, being a microscopic grain of pollen — which has a surface coating that's antagonistic to the nasal passages of humans — and the female receptacle surface, called the stigma?”

        I blew my nose. And guessed “B.”

        Professor Caruso applauded my knowledge of the plant world's version of the birds and the bees. Then he delivered a brief lecture.

        “Plants can't go out for a good meal, with candles on the table, a bottle of wine and some good music. They're stationary. Pollen helps them make more plants.”

        In other words, pollen helps plants make whoopee.

        I felt a bit better (sniff) knowing pollen has something to do with a plant's having a good time.

        But pollen, the red stuff that sprinkles on the ground around maple trees or the gold dust covering your car's windshield after you park under a pine tree, still makes me blast off.

        I'm sick of sneezing.

        “To be exact,” said Dr. Thomas Schrimpf, an ear, nose and throat specialist, “you are a sick serial sternutator.”

        “The medical term for the act of sneezing is sternutation. When you annoy people with your repeated sneezes, they can glare at you and say, "You sternutator, you!'”

        Sneezes are as natural as a cough or an eye blink. “They're all a reflex action,” he said. “With a sneeze, the muscles you use to expire air from your lungs contract involuntarily and expel whatever — pollen, dust, chemicals — is in your nose.”

        The power of those explosions is, well, nothing to sneeze at. Sneezes have been clocked at 103.6 mph as they leave the body. By comparison, the winds around the eye of a hurricane swirl at a pokey 75 mph.

        Now, whenever the spring breezes blow and the pollen flies, I will remember the power of a sneeze.

        I'll face the Silent Sinus Killer with more understanding. But just as many tissues.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.