It's a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad allergy season

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The headlines say it all:

"We're in the grips of one of the worst allergy seasons in history." (The New York Post)

"EXPERTS AGREE: SPRING HAS BEEN UNUSUALLY BAD." (San Jose Mercury News)

"A yellow haze of pollen descended on the Southeast in the past week, coating cars and porch furniture and making people miserable in one of the worst allergy seasons in years." (Associated Press)

"If your allergies are worse than ever this spring, you're not alone." (New York Daily News)

OK, we get the point. All over the country, it's been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad allergy season this year -- except the first headline is from a 2005 news report; the second from 2006; the third from 2007 and the fourth from 2009.

Oh, and this just in: 2010 is shaping up to be a "monster of an allergy season." (Associated Press)

As surely as the birds fly north on the warm winds of spring, so too flies the tree pollen -- north, south, east and west -- which means lots of itchy eyes, sneezing and general misery for the nation's 25 million allergy sufferers. And, of course, every year, that also means a bumper crop of doomsday allergy stories, usually with the word "worst" in them.

But this year is -- really, we promise -- the worst year in memory, according to allergy and weather experts, some of whom cite the unseasonably balmy, relatively rain-free April as the culprit. Others blame a wet fall and a snowy winter, while still others argue climate change is to blame.

Whatever the case, "It has never been this bad, I can tell you that," said Trish Martin of Wilkinsburg, who has been going to bed with the windows shut and cold compresses on her eyes every night.

"I'm just trying to stick it out past April," said Ms. Martin, a medical assistant at Metro Family Practice in Wilkinsburg, who relies heavily on antihistamines to get her through the day. "And just yesterday a little girl, 8 years old, was in here with allergies, too. She'd rubbed her eyes until they were all scaly and bleeding, poor thing."

A report recently issued by the National Wildlife Federation noted that with spring arriving earlier in many areas than just 20 years ago, pollination is starting sooner, too. Changes in climate have increased habitat "conducive to more allergenic trees," such as oak and hickory naturally replacing pines, spruces and firs, which don't cause allergies. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air (a 40 percent increase since Colonial times) are fueling rampant plant growth, the report said, listing seven states as "hot spots" at risk of high increases in tree pollen, including Pennsylvania.

The spring hay fever season is, indeed, "earlier than it's ever been, and the pollen levels are lasting longer at high levels than they ever have," said David Skoner, director of the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at Allegheny General Hospital.

The hospital's rooftop pollen counter -- aka the Burkhardt Volumetric Spore Trap -- measures the amount of tree, grass and weed pollen in the air at 24-hour intervals. That data is passed on to local media, weather forecasters and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology -- which then posts the results along with similar counts on its website.

In 2009, it recorded a huge spike in late April in overall amounts of pollen, but that high number subsided to low or moderate levels very quickly, whereas this year, high levels of pollen showed up earlier and lingered longer, thanks to unseasonably warm April temperatures.

For example, oak tree pollen, a major irritant, spiked at "very high" levels on April 7 this year, unlike last year, when those numbers didn't spike until April 27, Dr. Skoner said.

Allergies are triggered when pollen and other allergens enter the lungs and bloodstream, prompting the immune system to view them as dangerous substances. The body tries to expel them by flooding the bloodstream with histamine and leukotriene, which irritate nasal passages, sinuses and eyes and trigger sneezing.

A whole arsenal of medications are available to help manage symptoms, but many -- nasal steroids, for example -- need to be started a few weeks prior to the onset of allergy season. This year physicians and their patients were caught unawares, said Deborah Gentile, director of research at AGH's allergy division.

She and others say they get more complaints about allergies after a harsh winter, and, indeed, some scientists have speculated that severe weather triggers more pollen production -- a survival mechanism by plants to create more plants -- and more allergenic pollen, to boot.

"I think it's related to the winter we had," Dr. Gentile said. "We've found that harsh winters actually seem to make vegetation grow back stronger, which is why we're seeing so much more pollen than in previous years."

Indeed, this spring's allergy "burst" can be directly blamed on this year's severe winter, according to a news release issued by pollen.com.

"Increased groundwater levels, caused by heavy snow and rain in some areas, led to the ground retaining an enormous amount of moisture," said Roxanne Turner, director of syndicated research at SDI, a Pennsylvania-based health care analysis firm, noting that many parts of the country also had an exceptionally cold winter, which caused a late spring start.

"Many areas of the country have been experiencing unseasonably warm weather over the past few weeks, so trees that had a pent-up need to pollinate pollinated suddenly. A combination of all of these factors caused pollen levels to explode."

Weather experts here weren't completely buying that argument, however, noting that after February's huge snow totals, there was only half an inch of snow in March in the Pittsburgh region. And until this weekend's rain, relatively little precipitation was recorded in April.

"The vegetation here has actually been pretty dry," said Zaaron Allen, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service's bureau in Moon, adding that the agency has actually issued a preliminary "red flag" about a fire risk.

Mr. Allen was also skeptical about the argument that climate change is behind the recent spate of intense allergy seasons, noting that climatology examines weather data over hundreds and thousands of years.

"This year was just a snapshot in the whole weather perspective," Mr. Allen said.

While the experts argue and scratch their heads, 14-year-old Johonna Bauer is trying not to scratch her eyes or her nose, "which has been itchier than in other years," she said.

Usually "her allergies don't hit her until May," added her mother, Lori, of Mount Chestnut in Butler County, "But this year she was feeling it by the end of March. I don't know how much it's worse, but it just seems to be coming on stronger, quicker, sooner."


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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