Spring's pollen brings allergy victims to tears

May 05, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

In springtime, Dana Frank's thoughts turn to baseball, steroid nasal sprays and antihistamine eye drops. He keeps his windows shut on many balmy nights, and powers up his car's air conditioning even when it isn't sticky outside.

Like thousands of other Americans, the Baltimore physician suffers from a severe allergy to tree pollen. In late April and early May, when the oaks and ashes and alders get frisky, Dr. Frank feels miserable.

"Particularly in the early morning and late afternoon, I have very itchy eyes, painful eyes, sneezing, runny nose," he said yesterday. "Once I start itching my eyes, it's almost impossible for me to stop."

His medications help control the symptoms, he said. "But on really bad days, I don't even go out of the house."

Some allergy sufferers say they feel worse than ever this year. But there is nothing extraordinary about the current pollen season, said Dr. Robert G. Hamilton, director of the Dermatology, Allergy and Clinical Immunology laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University's Asthma and Allergy Center.

"The pollen counts are comparable, in terms of relative levels, to last year, except they're coming one week later," he said.

Sufferers, he said, are frequently convinced that "the season that they're in right now is the worst season." It may be that they become more sensitive to their allergies over time. Or perhaps people have a hard time remembering past suffering. "I'm not sure why," he said.

Wet weather this year has both promoted the production of pollen and limited its effects.

"This has been a good growing season," said Ray Bosmans, a horticulturist with the state Cooperative Extension Service. "The trees are probably as healthy as they're going to be. So normally you would get a lot of pollen release, too."

But rain scours much of the pollen from the air. Only during the recent eight-day dry spell did many allergy sufferers begin to itch, sneeze and weep in earnest.

Things will get worse.

While the Asthma and Allergy Center measured a miserable 2,099 grains per cubic meter on Monday, "it probably will get higher during the next week or two of May," Dr. Hamilton said. In a typical May, he said, counts can reach 7,000 to 8,000.

But the current season probably won't be nearly as wretched as 1990, Dr. Hamilton said. That year he wrote a lot of letters to employers explaining why allergy sufferers couldn't come to work.

Dr. Frank remembers it well. "It killed me for about 10 days," he said.

By the end of May, the trees will be exhausted but grasses will begin their annual barrage. Ragweed pollen, which probably affects more people than any other irritant, peaks in August.

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