Suffering is in the air as those with allergies complain of bad season

Pollen counts are up, but numbers don't spell more severe reactions

May 03, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

It's the trees. Or maybe the grass.

It could well be both. Pollen counts are up these days, and clouds of the microscopic grains are descending on cars, patios and people across Maryland.

As nature goes eagerly about the annual business of reproduction, many of us are paying a price in sneezing, wheezing, itching and complaining.

This season has been as awful as any for Robbin Englar, 43, of Perry Hall, who says she takes three prescription drugs almost daily and sees her spring allergies getting progressively worse each year.

"Mine is just getting very congested. It's gone into my sinuses, and I get headaches that turn into migraines," she said, braving a sunny, breezy day -- just right for an exploding pollen count -- to attend the Towsontown Spring Festival yesterday.

Shelley Workman-Raspa, 34, of Lutherville said she has been bothered by allergies only in the past few years, and only had to take prescription medicine for it occasionally.

But this season has been a doozy, she said -- telling of congestion getting to her ears, occasional bouts of vertigo from something in the spring air, and taking the medicine "every day since March."

Still, she remains uncertain about the precise cause of her woes. Like many allergy sufferers, she has not been tested.

Sources of allergens abound.

Tree pollen counts -- mostly oaks, mulberry and ash -- have been especially high in recent days as the tree season nears its climax. Grass season is getting under way.

Recent clear, dry weather -- especially coming after a rainy spell -- has been ideal for large pollen releases by many plant species.

In sensitized people, the presence of the tiny bundles of plant protein in nasal passages or the lungs triggers the exaggerated immune response we call allergies, or "hay fever."

But while official pollen counts are a good way for people to learn which plants are active, specialists say, the size of those numbers doesn't necessarily reveal anything about how much people are suffering.

It's what's out there, not how much.

"Most people's symptoms don't absolutely correlate with the numbers you hear broadcast," said Dr. Sarbjit Saini of the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center.

The nasal passages or lungs of sensitive people don't need much irritation from pollen to set off an allergic reaction.

"They're primed to respond to what's in their airborne environment," he said. "It doesn't necessarily take such a high level as 1,000 or 500 in the pollen count" to make a person miserable.

People with year-round sensitivity and chronic exposures to indoor allergens, such as cats or cockroaches, might also find their systems are primed to be more sensitive to certain pollens when they come into season.

Unfortunately, Saini said, "most people who have allergies usually have a few outdoor pollens and one or two indoor allergens they're sensitive to, such as dust and cats."

Rain and high humidity can help clear the air or slow the release of pollen.

But if those fail, other remedies are available, Saini said.

Over-the-counter antihistamines are old standbys, he said.

"If you have the ability to utilize an air filtration system -- something as simple as air conditioning, or keeping the windows closed in the house -- that will help."

People with severe symptoms should see a physician, he said. "There are a lot of prescription medicines that have been highly successful. If all else fails, there are allergy shots and immunotherapy."

Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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