The Sound of the Season
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 6, 1999; Page Z22
Sit quietly in the library and you'll hear it. Walk down the street and you'll hear it. You'll hear it on the subway and on the bus, in the grocery store and on the playground. It's one of the familiar sounds of spring.
It's allergy season again, the time of year when the blooming trees and flowers that make spring so pleasant for many people bring sniffles and sneezes to others.
The sneezes and sniffles come to those people who are allergic to pollen, tiny particles that are released from trees, weeds, flowering plants and grasses in spring, summer and fall. (The American Academy of Allergy and Immunology reports that 35 million Americans have allergic rhinitis, or "hay fever," caused by pollens.)
Pollen's main job is to fertilize plants so that they can make more plants. Allergy symptoms happen when people breathe in particles of pollen (or other substances such as dust, mold or animal dander). These allergens, as they are called, land on the lining of the nose and throat, causing cells in the lining to give off substances that cause inflammation, runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes.
In the Washington area, the pollen problem is mainly caused by trees in the spring, grass in summer and weeds in the fall. People can be allergic to any one of these things or all of them at the same time. Those with multiple allergies may sneeze from spring through fall unless they take medicine or are treated with special allergy shots that build up resistance.
People who are allergic to pollen need to be aware when conditions are bad, and organizations such as the American Lung Association offer help. "One of the things we have been doing here in D.C. for the last 20 years is providing the daily pollen count," says Rolando Andrewn, the Lung Association's executive director for the District of Columbia.
"When the pollen count is over 200, people who are particularly allergic need to make sure their indoor air quality is good whether through ventilation or air conditioning. And if you have a filter, it's important to clean it at least once a month," Andrewn says.
Another thing people need to be aware of is the difference between allergy symptoms and colds.
The Lung Association says that children who suffer from violent spells of repeated sneezes rather than just an occasional one are likely to be suffering from allergies, not a cold. Allergy sufferers feel itching in their ears, noses and throats; people with colds usually do not. A cold lasts seven to 10 days, while allergies tend to linger for weeks or even months.
On the other hand, a fever is a sign that a person has a cold.
Sometimes people also try to tell if their congestion is more than an allergy by the type of nasal mucus. The nasal discharge that comes with allergies is thin, watery and clear. The stuff that comes out of your nose when you have a cold usually is also thin, watery and clear, although sometimes it gets thicker and has color. But with both colds and allergies, an infection can occur in pockets in the bones surrounding the nose called sinuses. These infections can cause very thick, dark colored mucus.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology offers these tips for handling pollen season:
* Keep windows closed at night. Use air conditioning, which cleans, cools and dries the air.
* Avoid early morning outdoor activities. Pollen in the air is at its highest level before 10 a.m.
* Keep your car windows closed when traveling.
* Avoid being outdoors or mowing lawns when the pollen count is high.
Here's one more good idea for the sneezin' season: Always carry a packet of tissues!
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