A bumper crop of pollen and plenty of breezy weather has made this a bad spring for Washington area allergy sufferers.
Perennial victims say it has been one of their worst years. And some who scoffed at the suffering of congested coworkers in years past say that 1980 has taught them to take hay fever seriously.
"It's totally unexpected," said Joe Handy, who works in the Environmental Protection Agency's office of public awareness. "(During other springs) I'd sneeze a lot and go through a lot of Kleenex. This year I'm taking antibiotics because I developed a sinus infection."
I think it's the worst season I've gone through yet," said Susan Moore, a 26-year-old bookkeeper who has suffered from hay fever all her life. Moore said she wakes up each morning with "a heaviness in my cheekbone almost like a toothache."
"Then the nose starts to run. Then I get spasms of sneezing, 10 or 12 at a time." By midmorning, she said, her whole head feels congested.
Allergists confirmed that, judging by the number of patients they are seeing, there is more hay fever this year than in the last two or three years. The tree and grass pollen of May and June seem to bother people almost as much as the Darth Vader of pollens -- ragweed -- which doesn't show up unitl August.
"They call Washington the sinus capital," said Dr. Yuill Black, the allergist who does the daily pollen count for the D. C. Medical Society.
In a city where humidity and pollution clog noses in the best of times, Black said heavy spring rains followed by dry, windy weather in late May had made the last few weeks particularly hard for pollen-sensitive people. m
Allergy season opens with tree pollen in March, and trees are the main offender until mid-May, Black said. Then grass pollen predominates until July, with English plantain pollen joining the scene in June. After a brief respite for hay fever victims in July, ragweed pollen attacks in August and lingers until the first frost.
The count of tree pollen peaked at 129 on May 6, but the worst day for sniffles so far this year, according to the D.C. Lung Association, was May 29, when the grass pollen count reached 111 and the air pollution index hit 95. 2
Black said the pollen count, which allergy sufferers often listen for on newscasts before planning their day's activities, is conducted by smearing silicone jelly on a glass side and putting the slide at the top of a tall building. After several hours, Black stains the slide and counts the pollen particles sticking to it.
"It's a very rough count," he said. "It gives us a reasonably good idea what's in the air -- is it oak, grass, or pine pollen?"
Grass pollen has caused most of the suffering during the last two weeks, according to Dr. Norman Lee Barr Jr., an allergist who practices in Washington and in McLean. He said many of his patients go out to mow the lawn and develop hay fever so severe that they can't sleep that night.
A person develops an allergy when cells of his immune system begin producing chemical "antibodies" against pollen, dust or other substances, Barr said. Some of the antibodies are attached to special cells called mast cells in the lining of the nose and throat.
Once the antibodies are in place, particles of the pollen that enter his nose cling to antibodies against the pollen on the mast cell surface, triggering the mast cell to release histamine and other chemicals that produce swelling, mucus and all the symptoms of the allergy.
Barr said that when an allergy is triggered by an irritant that is present yearl-round -- such as dust or cat fur -- an allergist can give the victim a series of shots containing a diluted solution of the offending agent.
This encourages other cells of the immune system to make "blocking antibodies," which attach to the allergy-producing antibodies on the mast cells. They thereby block the irritating substance from clinging to the antibodies and triggering a reaction -- much like a game of musical chairs.
But the series of shots takes five weeks or more to relieve the allergic symptoms, and the patient must then get boosters regularly, he said. So usually victims of hay fever, who have symptoms only for one or two months a year, are told to sneeze and bear it.
Many can control their discomfort with decongestants sold without a prescription. But some are so disabled by congestion and sinus headaches that they need stronger medications or occasional treatment with cortisone, Barr said.
Barr believes many of his patients discover they have hay fever when they move to Washington from other states, because it is their first exposure to some plants and because the climate in this area exacerbates allergies.
Black said others simply forget from year to year how miserable it feels to have hay fever.
"People have short memories. Every year people think it's the worst year they've had because they forget how bad it was the year before," he said.