Achoo! Blame pollen and mold Spring's terrible two: Pollen, mold

Posted: April 19, 2002

As if having record-breaking, August-style heat and humidity in April isn't uncomfortable enough, the weather is pushing tree pollen and mold counts to unprecedented levels.

For people with both asthma and allergies, this heat spell has been not just unpleasant, but risky, pulmonary specialists say. In the worst scenario, a person with diagnosed allergies but undiagnosed asthma could suffer a life-threatening asthma attack triggered by pollen and outdoor exertion, said Gilbert D'Alonzo, a pulmonary specialist and asthma researcher at Temple University Hospital.

D'Alonzo said his regular patients, too, are miserable - as is he: "I have allergic rhinitis myself, and personally, this has been one tough spring."

Schools, meanwhile, are dealing with an epidemic of sneezing, sniffling and coughing.

"Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday have been the worst days this year," said Amy Hawthorne, the nurse at Cherry Hill's Russell Knight Elementary School. "I've had a steady stream of customers with red, swollen eyes. I rinse their eyes, then give them packs of ice."

Yesterday, the tree-pollen count was 2,886 - that's how many tiny, irritating grains passed through a cubic meter (a refrigerator-sized area) over a 24-hour period.

Anything over 300 is high, and enough to aggravate seasonal allergies, said David Dvorin, an allergist who has taken daily pollen readings for a decade for the National Allergy Bureau, part of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. In fact, yesterday's count was six times higher than the highest Dvorin had previously recorded on that date.

Adding to the sylvan haze, the mold-spore count - which usually stays low until the humidity of late summer and fall - was 3,481, more than three times the level defined as "high."

And thanks to the drought, there has been precious little rain to wash the atmosphere free of pollen, the tiny granules that are produced to fertilize other trees.

It's no surprise that people with asthma, allergies, or respiratory problems (and, to a lesser degree, anyone who breathes) have been miserable.

Dvorin, who sees patients at the Asthma Center in Mount Laurel, has been unusually busy.

"The tree-pollen peak seems to be one to two weeks earlier this year than usual," he said. "The heat and humidity really drive the pollen counts up."

Last year, for reasons no one could explain, trees went into a reproductive frenzy, with the pollen count reaching a staggering 6,800 in the first week of May.

Does that suggest that in a few weeks, counts will go even higher, making the air as thick as the green film now coating windshields?

"It's a good question," Dvorin said. "I would not expect it to peak much higher than it is now. There's a limit to the amount of pollen trees can produce."

Up to 20 percent of the population is bothered by at least one seasonal allergen - tree, grass or ragweed pollen. Dvorin estimates two-thirds of those sufferers are tree-sensitive.

D'Alonzo said sufferers with severe breathing problems should not rely on over-the-counter medicines.

"This is a problem. Asthma is still being misdiagnosed," he said. "You get a person who, in the past, could take a cold medication or allergy medication and control allergy symptoms. But now, they might actually need inhaler therapy or rescue medication" to control asthma.

Besides taking allergy or asthma medications, the experts say, the best way to find relief is to stay in air-conditioning. It cuts indoor pollen levels by 95 percent, and kills mold spores.

Contact Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or mmccullough@phillynews.com.

Pollen Pointers

* Keep windows closed.

* Use an air conditioner and dehumidifier.

* Use a paper mask when mowing or raking.

* Avoid hanging laundry out to dry.

* Shower and change your clothes after time outdoors.

* Minimize outdoor activity when the pollen count is high.

For more information., the Spring Allergy and Asthma Survival Guide can be found at www.aaaai.org/springallergy.

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