The Heat Is Online

Warm Winter Yields Bumper Crop of Allergies

Comin' ah-choo

Tepid temperatures speeding allergy season

The Boston Globe, April 10, 2002

There's something in the spring air, and it's making lots of people miserable.

Thanks to an unusually warm winter, trees in New England are releasing their pollen early - and delivering a bumper crop of sneezes, drippy noses, and watery eyes to allergy sufferers.

One specialist reported that pollen counts this April have already ascended to a level not seen till the end of April last year. And clinics are seeing the impact.

''Things certainly are starting up,'' said Dr. Javed Sheikh, an allergy specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, ''and this week we're seeing a dramatic increase in patients' symptoms.''

Allergy season normally blossoms later in April, when the delicate blooms on birch, poplar, and maple trees burst to disperse pollen. This year, the trees are flowering early - meaning pollen is already in the air.

Yesterday, with temperatures hovering around 70, pollen readings rose to 72 grains per cubic meter, according to Dr. Julian Melamed, a Chelmsford allergy specialist, who said that was higher than normal for so early in the season.

And that likely is a harbinger of more misery to come.

The oak tree is the last major player of spring allergy season, its blooms arriving later than other trees but provoking more suffering, said Dr. Paul J. Hannaway, a Salem specialist. Oaks typically don't start releasing their pollen until early May, but warm April days could trigger the grains' fall sooner this year.

Pollen is among the primary agents responsible for allergic reactions, which happen when allergens enter via the nose, lungs, and eyes. In sensitive people, the body's immune system responds to inhaled pollen with a chain reaction that results in a runny nose, wheezing, and, in bad cases, sinusitis and asthma attacks.

Hannaway, like other doctors who earn their living treating crimson noses and raspy lungs, knows that allergies are serious. In fact, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that 40 million to 50 million people in the United States are stricken with allergies.

''There's decreased quality of life, there's missed school, missed work, poor sleep patterns,'' Hannaway said. ''So your life is significantly affected.''

It is a plight that Paul Epstein, associate director of Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, predicts will grow even more acute as the century progresses.

Writing in the March edition of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, Epstein reported that ragweed pollen levels will soar 61 percent if carbon dioxide levels double, as forecast, by as early as 2050.

In an interview, Epstein explained that rising levels of carbon dioxide and consequent global warming result in more photosynthesis and, thus, plants engaged in a frenzy of growth.

''This is not just ragweed but plants, trees - they all respond by creating more ways to reproduce and disperse,'' he said.

For now, allergy sufferers can take steps to avoid the worst that allergy season doles out. Specialists caution them to avoid the entirely natural urge to swing open the doors and windows to let in the spring sunshine, and to wear sunglasses or a cap to keep pollen out of their eyes.

Spring's pollen, unlike ragweed and the other agents of summertime suffering, comes from above, not the ground.

''The other thing people tend to do in the spring is they hang laundry out to dry,'' Sheikh said. ''Then you're going to end up getting clothes and sheets filled with pollen at the end of the day.''

Much of the focus of allergy specialists and researchers is trained on preventing attacks. Today, that can mean early doses of nasal steroids, antihistamines, and decongestants. In the future, scientists hope to create renegade antibodies that will disarm the antibodies implicated in all allergic reactions - thus allowing even the most sensitive people to enjoy a warm April in peace.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/10/2002.