Welcome to the chamber of horrors _ the absolute peak of pollen season. The local pollen count has taken off like a rocket, making this the worst time of the year for allergy sufferers.
It's covering cars, piling up on sidewalks and drifting through screens. But the biggest problem can be found in allergists' offices, jammed with people suffering from itchy eyes and runny noses, wheezing and sneezing.
"I do a daily pollen count myself in St. Petersburg. I've kept records going back 18 years, and these past two weeks have been the highest tree pollen counts that I've recorded," said Dr. Stephen Klemawesch.
Blame it on the oak trees. They're trying to reproduce, and their pollen is causing the bulk of the problem. Some experts think the recent shift from very cold to very hot weather has triggered the release of more pollen than ever.
"I think the reason it's so high is, the very cool weather did not allow oak trees to pollinate," said Klemawesch, an allergist who is being bombarded with patients. "Then, with the quick transition to warm weather, the trees tried to play catch-up and released all their pollen at once."
In Tampa, this week's oak pollen count soared to 1,600 particles per cubic meter, with anything above 200 considered high, said Dr. Rosa Codina, assistant professor of allergy and immunology at the University of South Florida.
"This is the peak of the season. We have 11 different species of oak in this area, and they pollinate just one right after another," said Codina, who counts pollen caught in two collectors mounted atop her north Tampa office. "This week and next week are going to be especially heavy."
Two years ago, her pollen count approached 2,700 in the springtime, the highest in years. In her opinion, the current allergy season is not worse than past years.
Not everyone would agree.
"I can't see. I can't sleep. I can't eat because my throat's killing me," said Susan Pierce, a St. Petersburg child care worker. "It's beautiful outside, and I'm indoors watching TV."
Most allergy sufferers are having problems with their eyes. But Jose Dominguez Jr., a Tampa allergist, is seeing more asthma cases than usual.
"People's asthma was compounded earlier this year, with us having cold and hot weather," Dominguez said. "It really threw people out of balance."
Pollen is a sign of spring fertility. It's the male reproductive agent of plants. The local pine trees and junipers do their part, but oaks are the main culprits.
"It's oak pollen, the yellow-green stuff hanging on your car. That's the problem," said Maria T. Olivero of the Allergy & Asthma Center, which has offices in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Experts say the worst of it should be over in a week or two, although lower levels of pollen should persist through April and part of May.
Recent breezy conditions have aggravated the discomfort.
"Oak pollen is a quarter of the size of pine pollen. It's a fine dust. It travels farther on the wind," Klemawesch said.
Allergists offered the standard tips: Close the windows and run the air conditioner in your house and car. Shower and change your clothes when you come home. Use eye drops, nasal sprays or medication.
They also had some tips you may not have heard before.
Wear glasses, not contacts, to keep pollen out of your eyes when the wind is blowing, Dominguez said.
Bathe your pet more often so it won't track pollen into your house, Olivero suggested.
"Leave your shoes at the door," Klemawesch said. "The more pollen you bring inside, the more it affects you."
Experts estimate 35-million Americans suffer from allergic reactions to airborne pollen.
In people who are not allergic, mucus in nasal passages simply moves foreign particles to the throat, where they are swallowed or coughed out.
When a person is sensitive to airborne allergens, the immune system treats the allergen as an invader, resulting in the release of histamine and other powerful chemicals.
These chemicals lead to the common symptoms of hay fever:
Runny or clogged nose
Coughing and postnasal drip
Itching eyes, nose, and throat
Red, swollen eyes
The oak pollen count is especially high, almost four times higher than last week. Most individuals sensitive to oak or juniper and many sensitive to Australian pine will experience symptoms.
Weekly averages, measured in particles per cubic meter+
Oak 440 1,708
Juniper 100 84
Australian pine 40 8
+ Pollen is collected over a weeklong period, analyzed and reported as a number. That number would mean that there were, on average, that number of particles of pollen in one cubic meter of air. We breath in about one cubic meter of air in half an hour.
SOURCES: Something in the Air: Airborne Allergens from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease; Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Florida Chapter.