Unpredictability in air for allergy sufferers

Drought could make the season milder or postpone its peak

August 28, 1999|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

For millions of Americans, the last weeks of August mean the same thing every year: sneezing, a runny nose, and an itchy throat. But this summer's hot dry, weather could mean that allergy sufferers will get some relief -- or feel even worse than usual.

Nobody quite knows what to expect this unpredictable season.

Optimists, figuring that the drought killed off allergy-inducing ragweed, think patients will have an easy time. Some scientists believe the recent rainfall might merely delay the season. Still others, saying ragweed flourished in the dry heat, forecast one of the worst seasons ever.

The National Allergy Bureau, which tracks pollen levels in cities around the country, reported this week that the Baltimore area has a moderate count of ragweed and molds, meaning many people with these allergies will experience symptoms.

"I started feeling it last week," said Kim Davenport, 31, an Essex woman who has suffered from ragweed allergy since junior high school. "It's just is a miserable feeling. Even the roof of my mouth starts itching."

Davenport goes through a half a box of tissues a day and carries around her contact lens case, ready for when her eyes get too watery and scratchy.

Spring and summer, with abundant tree and grass pollen, are often the worst time of year for people with allergies, said Dr. Lawrence Schieken, director of the Comprehensive and Chesapeake Asthma and Allergy Centers.

But late summer's ragweed season may be more obvious, since it starts so routinely each year around Aug. 15, peaks on Labor Day, and then fades out with the first killing frost in October or November.

"It's like clockwork. I'm starting to see them [allergy patients] now," said Dr. Esmeralda Del Rosario, a family practitioner at Greater Baltimore Medical Center who sees a large number of patients with allergies.

In recent days at Schieken's centers, which have offices in Annapolis, Reisterstown, Columbia and Easton, physicians are seeing about the same number of patients as usual, but the cases aren't as severe. Schieken believes that's because the drought cut down on the number of ragweed plants, and he's expecting a shorter, milder season.

"There's nothing lush out there right now," said Schieken.

In Towson, Dr. John Bacon said he hasn't seen too many patients yet. But the next few weeks will be telling. A steady rain would scrub the air clean. A short-lived thunderstorm would raise the pollen count by suspending it in the atmosphere.

"The question is, `What happens the next week and the week after?' " said Bacon, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Many experts caution that a drought is not enough to wipe out ragweed. The plant, considered by many to be the most powerful allergen in the United States, is a survivor. Its seeds can last for decades. A single plant can produce 1 billion grains of pollen, and one grain of pollen can travel up to 400 miles from its source.

In the early 1950s, when New York City tried to eradicate ragweed from vacant lots, sidewalk cracks and other places where the plant flourishes, the pollen count remained high. Experts deduced the ragweed pollen had simply blown in from New Jersey.

Ragweed triggers allergy symptoms when the body treats its pollen as dangerous. When exposed to the substance, the body mounts a defense, causing symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening. Although allergies most often affect the nose, eyes and throat, they can strike anywhere, causing headaches, stomachaches, fatigue and depression.

Nationwide, more and more people are suffering from allergies.

At the turn of the century, roughly 10 percent of the population had allergies. By the 1950s, the number had risen to 15 or 20 percent, said Dr. Richard Weber, an allergist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center, which deals exclusively with allergies and respiratory diseases. Now, Weber believes the population affected is probably about 25 to 30 percent.

But in a representative telephone poll of 1,004 adults conducted this month by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, surveyors found that 38 percent reported having allergies. Fifty-six percent said that they live in a household in which at least one member, including themselves, has allergies.

There are many theories why. Energy-efficient houses mean that air doesn't circulate as well, and allergens such as dust and animal dander tend to build up, experts said. More babies born premature with underdeveloped lungs are surviving, and they might be more affected by allergies. Outside, there are also more pollutants, including diesel fuel and sulphur dioxide, that can cause allergies.

"There are all these signs that Western civilization encourages allergies," said Dr. Ira Finegold, past president of ACAAI and chief of allergy at St Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City.

For many, over-the-counter medicines are enough to get them through a few rough weeks, and only one-third of people with allergies seek medical care.

Treatments range from avoiding the allergen as much as possible to taking over-the-counter remedies and getting prescription drugs or allergy shots.

In the phone poll, Finegold said, only about 11 percent knew about allergy shots, or immunotherapy, despite their long-term use and proven effectiveness.

"They really get down to the basics of what's really making you sick," Finegold said. "People need to be informed of what their options are and take charge of their own health care. It's not just over-the-counter medicine. It's just not suffering. There's a treatment out there that can give you a healthy way of life."

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