"Welcome to the season," said Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at New Jersey Medical School in Newark.
It seems that just the right combination of wet weather and cool temperatures has produced a "bumper crop" of ragweed, said Bielory.
Dr. Edward Schulman, director of the asthma center at Hahnemann University Hospital, said: "My sense is that it has been a particularly bad season. People who usually don't have symptoms are sneezing."
The reason that this season is so mean for hay-fever sufferers is that ragweed pollen is much lighter than grass or tree pollen and consequently gets lifted high into the air, where it disperses easily. "It's all over the place," said Walter Jenotti, a medical researcher, who measures pollen at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J.
Indeed, according to Jenotti's calculations, this is the worst pollen season in five years. Ah, but that's where the professional consensus breaks down, for it appears that the measuring of pollen is not yet a very precise science.
In the last few days, Bielory has measured the total pollen count at 998
grains of pollen per cubic meter in Newark. Jenotti has recorded it at 202
grains in New Brunswick, and Dr. Donald Dvorin, of the Allergic Disease Associates in Philadelphia, recorded a reading of 117 in Philadelphia.
"There hasn't been any standardized approach to measuring pollen, and that has made comparisons difficult," said Dr. Jean Chapman, chairman of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology's aerobiology committee.
Pollen counts are usually made by placing a glass dish or plastic rod on a roof for 24 hours. Then a dye is used to stain the pollen that has stuck to the collector, and the number of grains are counted using a microscope.
"It is only a rough measure," said Chapman, an allergist in Cape Girardeau, Mo. However, in an attempt to make the readings more useful, Chapman said, the academy two years ago created a standardized network of pollen-counting stations.
Under this program, all stations will use the rod collectors and the readings are double-checked by the Aerobiology Center at the University of Michigan.
The New Jersey Medical School's pollen counting is certified by the academy, and Dvorin said he was applying for certification. Jenotti, however, has developed an entirely different method for testing for pollen, he said.
His machine measures pollen in a set volume of air and in doing so it attempts to measure the pollen in the air on a real-time basis rather than giving a single reading for 24 hours. Jenotti's numbers are used by the Delaware Valley Clean Air Council.
"Putting a little simple toy machine on the roof and staying this is what your pollen count is garbage," Jenotti said.
Dvorin pointed out that Jenotti's method doesn't jibe with the rest of the field. "In my opinion, his counting is not standardized," he said.
"But it doesn't really matter what the monitor says," Chapman said. "The real question is how people are feeling."
And these days, the answer is none too good. "I had my shot already," said Linda DiGuglielmo of Voorhees. "Normally I get it in mid-August, but this year, I got it at the beginning of August because I couldn't breathe at all."
The elevated pollen levels this year, whatever they are, will continue to make hay-fever sufferers miserable until the first good frost, Schulman said and he warned that repeated doses of pollen would make people more and more sensitive to the allergen.
Doctors say a few things people can do to reduce their exposure to pollen include:
* Keeping windows closed and air conditioning on at night, even when it is cool enough to have the windows open.
* Not hanging wash out to dry because it may collect pollen.
* Exercising early in the morning or a half-hour after dark, when the pollen levels are lowest.
* Wearing sunglasses outside to keep pollen out of the eyes. This is particularly important for people who wear contact lenses.