Wednesday, August 30, 2000

It's sneezin' wheezin' season

Ragweed peaks about Labor Day, but if you're allergic, you don't need to be reminded

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A single ragweed plant can produce more than 1 billion grains of pollen in a season.

        And ragweed grows all over, making allergy sufferers sneeze, wheeze and reach for their inhalers and eyedrops. Local experts say they can't predict whether the pollen count will hit record highs in the Tristate this year, but the ragwood season usually peaks about Labor Day.

[photo] Environmental technician Jim Wetzel classifies ragweed and mold particles at the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services in Corryville.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        “I always know when ragweed season starts because all my patients start calling for refills,” says Dr. Michelle Lierl, associate professor of clinical pediatrics in Children's Hospital Medical Center's division of allergy and pulmonary medicine.

        A recently released study says global warming might be to blame for pumping more pollen into the atmosphere. A weed ecologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture theorizes that increasing carbon monoxide levels in the atmosphere actually encourage ragweed growth, which in turn increases the amount of pollen.

        Whether pollen counts set a record this year or don't, experts point out, this is Cincinnati: There's more than enough ragweed to make everybody miserable.

        Cincinnati's climate is favorable for ragweed plants.

        “It's always a bad season, and I think probably the ragweed gets undercounted to some extent,” says Dr. Lierl. “Probably there's more of it at nose level than at rooftop level.”

        The Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services monitors air quality, including mold and pollen levels, daily from samplers set up on the rooftop of its office at 250 William Howard Taft Road.

        A sample is collected every 10 minutes, and the staff counts “any pollen grains that are there, and mold,” says Anna Kelley, quality assurance and monitoring coordinator for the agency.

  Here are some tips for avoiding exposure to ragweed and reducing the severity of the sneezin' season:
 • Pollen levels are highest early in the morning, so avoid being outdoors between 5 and 10 a.m.
 • Stay indoors on hot, windy days. If you have air-conditioning, use it.
 • If you do spend significant time outdoors, change your clothes and shower when you come in to get rid of any pollen that might be trapped in your clothes. And remember pets can carry pollen into the home.
 • Don't hang laundry outdoors to dry.
 Source: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

        “The amount of ragweed we see varies, and it's dependent on the growing conditions. Rainy springs and hot, dry summers tend to elicit a lot of ragweed growth. But we haven't had the hot, dry weather this summer, so the counts presumably should be a little lower, based on that,” Ms. Kelley says. “But it doesn't mean people won't suffer from it.”

        Monday's ragweed count was 228, which is on the high side, according to the county's air quality hotline.

        Experts say ragweed, described by botanists as a noxious weed, causes more suffering than any other allergen because of its long blooming season and its ability to grow just about anywhere in hot, dry conditions that kill many other plants.

        Dr. Allen Seiden, an otolaryngologist at the University of Cincinnati, is ready for a waiting room full of sneezy, scratchy-eyed patients.

        “It's about now when the ragweed starts to kick in, and it goes to the first frost,” he says.

        Warm weather is prime-time allergy season. It starts when the trees start budding out in spring, then segues to grasses and weeds from late spring through midsummer, with mold making an appearance as well. Now it's ragweed's turn.

        This summer, sisters Javasha and Charletta Scott, 13 and 11, of Colerain Township are getting out more, thanks to allergy shots. The two girls are allergic to just about everything, says aunt Diane Master, including ragweed and mold.

        But the shots they've been getting for the last six months or so “are kicking in,” Ms. Master says. “They get out a little bit.”

        Javasha and her sister go to Children's Hospital Medical Center once a week for their shots. Needles aren't fun, but Javasha isn't complaining.

        “The shots help me not to get sick a lot when it's time for allergy season with the mold and the pollen and everything. They make me feel better, too,” she says.

        Her allergies are “just horrible,” Javasha says.

        “I get stuffed up. My head hurts. My eyes hurt. And they itch,” she says.

        Smoggy summer days can aggravate allergies and asthma, experts say, and they apparently make good growing conditions for ragweed plants.

        Lewis Ziska, a weed ecologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that in 1900, when the carbon monoxide level in the US. was about 280 parts per million, ragweed produced about 5.5 grams of pollen per plant. But when carbon monoxide climbed to 370 parts per million, as it has in today's atmosphere, ragweed pollen climbed to 10 grams per plant. And as carbon monoxide continues to increase, pollen production is expected to hit 20 grams per plant in the next 50 years.

        Mr. Ziska is growing plots of ragweed in urban Baltimore, a suburb and a rural area of Maryland. So far, the urban plot, which gets exposed to higher levels of carbon monoxide, is growing fastest.

        Dr. David Bernstein, an allergist with the University of Cincinnati, says ragweed usually peaks around Labor Day. “That's when we see the most symptomatic patients, the patients with the most bothersome symptoms,” he says.

        But ragweed doesn't have to make your life miserable, Dr. Bernstein says.

        “If someone knows they have seasonal ragweed allergy and it's moderate or severe, they should probably be on some preventive medicine program, which should begin when their symptoms are still mild, as opposed to waiting until they're interfering with their ability to function,” he says.

        Non-sedating antihistamines and decongestants like Claritin and Zyrtec are effective for most patients. Corticosteroid nasal sprays and prescription eyedrops also help prevent symptoms.

        And if those don't work, there are always allergy shots, which, if continued over several years, can actually stop symptoms all together.

        And don't think you're going to build up a tolerance to ragweed — or mold or anything else you're allergic to, Dr. Bernstein cautions.

        “Once the allergic nose is exposed repeatedly over a period of the first few weeks of the season, in a sense it becomes primed,” he says. “What I mean is, once your nose becomes inflamed (by the allergen) it takes less each time to provoke a similar response.

        “So even though the pollen count may decline by the end of the season, even a few pollens is enough to provoke a response in people who are really allergic.”

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