Springtime in Washington and hay fever miseries are rampant. From Hains Point to Gaithersburg, from the Federal Triangle to Loudoun, as far as the pollen blows, the afflicted are getting out their handkerchiefs and antihistamines and rolling up their car windows.
This spring, allergists say, pollen counts have been high, and the suffering is nothing to sneeze at.
"Its the worst its been in the last five years," says Maryland allergist John Zucker, who counts the pollen every morning for local broadcasters. "Its not so much the numbers as the discomfort."
The horror stories this spring are legion, traded on elevators, at pharmacy counters, in carpools.
"Its awful," says legal assistant Patricia Thompson. "Everything itches, even the roof of my mouth. That's a disgusting thing to happen when you're in a silent crowd."
"It does seem to be worse this year," says architect Michael Sing. "There are bad days where I have to keep one hand on a Kleenex and another on my pencil."
"Two-thirds of my van pool are suffering from it," sniffles Sandy Scales, a secretary who commutes to the District of Columbia from Fairfax County. "We suffer twice. Once from the pollen, and two, because we have to ride with the windows all rolled up."
"This is the worst I've seen in a long time," concedes Connecticut Avenue pharmacist Paul Beringer, who has been watching the pollen wars for 12 years at the Cathedral Pharmacy. "People are coming over from the National Zoo and buying antihistamines at 40 and 100 tablets a clip."
Of course, not everyone agrees. Dr. Yuill Black has been monitoring pollen counts for 15 years for the D.C. Medical Society from high atop his office building on K Street. "This year is no worse than any other," says Black, an allergist. Its just that people forget." Black, it must be noted, is not allergic to pollen.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that at least 14.6 million Americans suffer from chronic hayfever, but that figure is always changing, and because many of the afflicted treat themselves with over the counter drugs and never seek a physician's help. Calls about pollen allergies are among the most frequently received at the facility, says Joan Hartman, a spokesman at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda.
Washington's wet winters, humid summers and acres of trees have earned D.C. the dubious distinction of pollen capital of the world. The allergy season typically opens here with tree pollens in March. Oak pollen is rampant now.
In about a week, the grasses will pollenate. Relief usually comes by July, but by August, the ragweed is raging, and the sneezing renews.
It takes about three years for susceptible newcomers to succumb to Washington's pollen, says Dr. Black. "We get Europeans in here who are fine for two years and then . . . wham."
Washingtonians may take comfort from the fact that the Midwest has more ragweed than the East; that the South has a Bermuda grass problem; and the Southwest has weeds as well as the winter-blooming mountain cedar to keep its allergists busy.
Most hayfever sufferers are adolescents and young adults, allergists say, and middle age often brings relief. But there are no rules. While susceptibility is believed to be an inherited trait, pollen allergies may remain dormant for years, erupting unexpectedly.
The enemy is an innocent-looking yellow powder, composed of millions of male sex cells found on flower stamens. Magnified, they look like tennis balls, grenades, even atoms. Without a microscope they just look like trouble.
"Most people's immune systems don't recognize pollen as an enemy," says the NIH's Hartman. Others, less fortunate, have bodies that treat pollen like a foreign invader, and line the cells of mucous membranes in the nose and mouth, and around the eyes, with antibodies to fight it. The cells react to pollen by releasing chemicals called histamines -- and there's the rub.
"Its come full-blossom since I've come to Washington," says federal auditor William Price. "The itching, the repetitive sneezing, the runny nose. It seems to get worse and worse. I can go out in the morning and see the yellow powder on the windshield. Its nice to see the enemy in physical form."
Remedies for those plagued by pollen are varied. If the allergy is incapacitating, doctors may resort to allergy shots. Milder cases call for antihistamines and air-conditioned rooms. The best solution, suggest Black, "is to go where there's no pollen."
But forget about Arizona. "A lot of people have done that," says Johns Hopkins University allergist Phillip Norman. "And a whole lot of allergists have moved out there to take care of them."