Thursday, April 24, 2003

Sneezing, wheezing worse this year

Long, cold winter produces big blast of pollen

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Blame the long, cold winter for the sneezing, wheezing spring.

Experts say Greater Cincinnatians aren't imagining things: Their allergies really are worse this year.

Abnormally cold weather delayed allergy season by a few weeks. Tree pollen, which normally arrives in polite little spurts as trees slowly begin budding in early spring, all got dumped into the Tristate's atmosphere at once, making allergy sufferers miserable.

"When allergy season did start, when the weather turned warm, we had a much larger load of pollen than usual," said Dr. David Bernstein, an allergist and researcher with the Bernstein Allergy Group in Finneytown.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, affects at least 35.9 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and hay fever costs Americans more than $6 billion annually.

Harry G. St. Clair, monitoring and analysis supervisor for the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services' air quality division, keeps track of pollen counts throughout the year.

St. Clair's office considers 0 to 20 to be low; 21-100 moderate; high 101-1,000, and very high over 1,000. Wednesday's count was 167.

Cold weather this year delayed early blooming trees, such as cedar, just long enough so that they started pumping out pollen at the same time as later-blooming trees, including box elder, maple and oak, experts said.

"And then they all started pollinating with a vengeance," St. Clair said.

The pollen onslaught was intense enough to send Paul Samson to the emergency room with his first-ever asthma attack. The Anderson Township psychologist, who has suffered with seasonal allergies "forever," is 61.

Samson went to the emergency room April 14. "I hadn't been feeling very well for the last three or four days," he said. When he started having trouble breathing, his wife called 911.

The trouble breathing turned out to be a severe asthma attack, Samson said. Allergies are a strong trigger for asthma.

Now, in addition to his usual prescription antihistamine, Samson has an inhaler to help him breathe easier.

Last year, St. Clair's staff started collecting data on Feb. 15, when the pollen count measured 52 grains per cubic meter. Counts for spring 2002 were mostly in the double digits for February and early March until March 8, when the count hit 561.

This year, the count started Feb. 18, when it measured 1 grain per cubic meter. The count stayed at 0 or 1 until March 12, when it climbed to 18. Then it hit triple digits and stayed there for several days starting March 17.

On April 16, 2002, the pollen count measured 1,039. This year, the count for that date measured 2,119.

Samson doesn't check pollen counts regularly, but he can tell when he can't breathe.

"This spring has been the worst," he said.

Thomas Tami, an ear, nose and throat specialist with the University of Cincinnati, said every year seems like the worst for allergy sufferers.

Mold hit record levels in 2002, he said, "but the pollen's been pretty potent this year."


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