WINTER IS BEHIND US, but not its effects. Early-blooming trees have been waiting for warmer days, and an explosion of pent-up pollen could soon be coming our way
By Brady Dennis and Ariana Eunjung Cha, The Washington Post – 4/4/2014
Goodbye, polar vortex. Hello, pollen vortex.
It turns out that this brutally cold, miserably long, snowfest of a winter did more than wreak havoc on the mid-Atlantic masses. It caused elms, cedars and other trees that typically flower early in the year to hold off for warmer weather.
Now, with more springlike days in the forecast, those trees are poised to pollinate alongside oaks, cottonwoods and pines, as well as some grasses. The result could mean a perfect storm of pollen in coming days – and an especially miserable stretch for allergy sufferers.
“Grab your Kleenex,” said Susan Kosisky , chief microbiologist at the U.S. Army’s Centralized Allergen Extract Laboratory. “It’s coming.”
Every day on the roof of Kosisky’s lab in Silver Spring, Md., two small greased rods spin through the air, collecting pollen particles. She said that over the past 15 years, the average daily measurement for the first week in April is about 353 grains per cubic meter of air. That figure can spike to more than 4,000 at the peak of the allergy season.
This week’s most recent reading: 109 grains per cubic meter.
That’s good news for many allergy sufferers . But it suggests a tidal wave of pent-up pollen could be coming as the mid-Atlantic heads toward the height of allergy season later this month.
“As soon as we get four to five days of sunshine in a row, we’re going to see the buds on the trees explode and people are going to be really suffering,” said Clifford Bassett , medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York.
Lewis Ziska , a plant physiologist with the Agriculture Department’s crop system and global change laboratory, said this year’s long, frigid winter is especially intriguing to scientists because one of two extremes could happen: “It could be everything happening all at one time. In that case, there will be records for pollen count set. Or the damage to plants could be severe enough that you may not get much of a pollen season at all.”
Mark Scarupa , an allergist at the Institute for Asthma and Allergy in Maryland, agrees that it’s difficult to predict the severity of any allergy season. Like the weatherman, we can get it wrong pretty bad,” he said.
The danger of a shorter but more intense allergy season, specialists say, is that it could overwhelm immune systems, triggering potentially serious health issues.
“It’s more than just a nuisance for some people,” said Sally Joo Bailey, assistant professor allergy and immunology at Georgetown University. “On some really bad days, if you have pollen allergies, you could have a severe asthma attack. When your nasal area gets inflamed because of allergies, it doesn’t just stop there. It can get into your lungs.”
Experts say people with allergies can take measures to lessen their contact with pollen, including using central air conditioning rather than opening windows, wearing sunglasses when outdoors and washing their hands frequently. In addition, doctors say patients who know they have spring allergies can begin taking antihistamines before the worst of the season arrives.”
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