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'Tis the season (sniff)

From mid-February through mid-March, with the pollen count soaring, up to 20 percent of Floridians suffer from allergies.

By LAUREN BAYNE ANDERSON
Published March 11, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - Allergist Stephen Klemawesch's office is packed.

"The phone rings off the hook, people just walk into the office hoping they can just talk to a nurse," said the St. Petersburg doctor. "It's not normal - they don't usually just show up on your doorstep."

But the rush is normal in mid-February through mid-March, when the pollen count is at its highest for the year. During the four-week span, up to 20 percent of Floridians suffer from allergies - runny noses, itchy eyes and even shortness of breath, said Richard Lockey, director of the allergy and immunology departments at the University of South Florida and the James A. Haley V.A. Hospital in Tampa.

The culprit? Mostly oak trees, which are in the midst of pollinating.

Trees reduce greenhouse gases, produce oxygen and even can increase property values with their sheer presence. But when spring rolls around, for many the tree transitions from friend to enemy.

Pollenating can begin as early as December and last through April, but the pollen count is highest during this time of the year, said Lockey, who takes a pollen count weekly.

People attribute allergies to things that aren't really causing them, he said, like orange blossoms or punk trees, which also bloom this time of the year.

But it's generally oak pollen and sometimes pine, that makes people sick.

"It's very small, very allergenic and can be blown for hundreds of miles," he said of the yellow powder. "There's just tons and tons of pollen in the air, you can see it on cars."

Florida is bad for allergies year-round, Lockey said. In summer, the offender is grass; and in the fall, weed season begins. Household allergies such as dust, cats, dogs, mold and even roach debris play a factor.

But this time of the year is the worst. For example, the pollen from grass in summer months usually hovers at 300- 400 pollen grains per liter of air, he said. But in mid-February through mid-March it's common to see pollen counts upwards of 3,000.

Klemawesch said allergies happen because the enzymes in pollen mistake human mucous membranes for a plant pistil.

"It lands on the moist part of a female plant and the enzyme allows a hole to be eaten away so the pollen can be deposited," Klemawesch said. "The pollen doesn't know that you're not an oak tree, so it hits your eyes, lungs, throat and those enzymes are released."

Klemawesch suggests over-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines like Claritin or Alavert to alleviate symptoms. For those with more serious problems, allergy injections are available.

Rains wash away the pollen, providing a temporary respite, but Klemawesch said the only way Floridians can escape allergy season is to pack up and leave town.

"The best thing to do is be a reverse snowbird," he said. "Go up north."

[Last modified March 11, 2005, 15:05:55]


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