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Quirky weather leads to worst allergy season in memory

Michelle Thompson used to soothe her 9-year-old daughter Hannah's seasonal allergies with over-the-counter antihistamines.

Not this year.

"She's just been miserable," said Thompson of Tarpon Springs. "Headaches, runny nose, red and watery eyes."

Hannah, like many of the nation's estimated 25 million other hay fever sufferers, is learning the hard way that this spring has brought one of the worst allergy seasons in recent memory. Tree pollen is everywhere, and it may hang around longer than usual.

You can blame the unseasonably cold winter, which delayed the blooms of various oak trees in Florida. The oaks normally start blooming in January, but didn't get going in earnest until last month, which is when other trees — including pines, maple, hickory, beech and birch — also bloom. And while the oak pollen usually goes away toward the end of April, it will likely hang around until mid May.

"This is one of the worst, going by pollen counts," said Dr. Patrick Klemawesch, an allergist and immunologist who practices at Allergy Associates in St. Petersburg with his father, Dr. Stephen Klemawesch.

Patrick Klemawesch said he's seeing more people come into the clinic with severe allergy symptoms, which include conjunctivitis (inflammation around the eyes), rhinitis (sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and itchy ears, nose and throat), and asthma (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath).

His clinic measures pollen regularly to find out what's in the air and how much of it is out there. Klemawesch says oak pollen, particularly the live oak variety, is "by far the predominant tree pollen causing allergic symptoms in the southeastern United States."

Pollen counts have been rising steadily in the Tampa Bay area since January, according to the Web site pollen.com. In January and February, local pollen counts hovered between 7 and 8 on a scale of 0 to 12. Since early March, pollen counts have consistently been higher than 9.

It doesn't take much pollen to create an allergic reaction, said Dr. Richard Lockey, who heads the allergy and immunology division at the University of South Floridaa and is also president of the World Allergy Association.

We've had recent days when there are as many as 6,000 pollen particles per cubic meter of air. And you need only 10 particles per cubic meter to trigger an allergic reaction in some people, he said.

Lockey said allergies are commonly treated with over-the-counter antihistamines such as Claritin or Zyrtec, or prescription nasal sprays like Flonase or Nasonex. But many sufferers also turn to immunotherapy, or allergy shots.

Klemawesch says he's seeing patients this year who don't normally have severe seasonal allergy symptoms, such as Hannah Thompson.

Michelle Thompson brought Hannah to see Klemawesch on Monday to find out exactly what she was allergic to and to start her on allergy shot treatments.

"She's allergic to many things — all the grasses, ragweed, Australian pine and almost all the trees," Thompson said.

She said Hannah, a fourth-grader at Brooker Creek Elementary School, has missed four or five school days in the past several weeks and also had to skip some gymnastics workouts. The pollen has also made Hannah's asthma symptoms worse.

"I get really tired sometimes," Hannah said. "It's worse when I'm outside. There are a lot of trees at school, and we have a lot of trees in our back yard."

Noel Grant, 34, has suffered from seasonal allergies for about four years.

But the Tampa man's symptoms have been a lot worse this year, especially since he started work with a property maintenance company a few weeks ago. He now spends about five hours a day outside, often with a leaf blower in his hands, often pushing piles of pollen away.

"This is the most congested I've ever been," said Grant, who was seeing Dr. Lockey on Monday.

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

Seasonal allergies 101

. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 18 million adults and 7 million children suffer from allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, each year.

. Symptoms can include itchy nose, mouth, eyes, throat or skin; runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, tearing eyes, coughing, clogged ears, sore throat, dark circles or puffiness under the eyes, fatigue and headache.

. There are three ways to treat seasonal allergy symptoms: Avoid the allergen by staying indoors; use over-the-counter or prescription medication, including antihistamines or steroid nasal sprays; or immunotherapy (generally called allergy shots) to help your body overcome its overreaction.

. You can also help your symptoms by using a nasal wash — a simple saline solution is fine — to flush the allergens from your nostrils. Doctors also suggest taking a shower and changing your clothes, as pollen can collect in your hair and clothing. Leave your shoes outside to avoid tracking in pollen.

. Monitor the amount of pollen in the air at pollen.com

Quirky weather leads to worst allergy season in memory 04/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 10:07am]
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