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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2000
Signs of the season are everywhere: people with itchy red eyes and stuffed-up noses. People wheezing and sneezing. People who haven't slept, who mow their lawns wearing surgical masks.
If you have allergies, welcome to the chamber of horrors.
The pollen count has taken off like a bottle rocket, kicking off the worst three weeks of the year. The oak trees are to blame.
A good stiff rain would rinse the air temporarily, but don't hold your breath. Forecasters predict a 1-in-5 chance of showers today in the Tampa Bay area. After that, no more rain clouds are in the immediate future.
"I haven't eaten in three days because my throat hurts so bad," moaned Barbara Baynard, a St. Petersburg receptionist who needs her voice on the job. "I knew this was coming. I know why I have this problem. But I have five oak trees, and I wouldn't give them up for anything."
It's two weeks till spring, and the oaks are showing off their fertility a little earlier this year. Pollen, the male reproductive agent of plants, is coating sidewalks and drifting through window screens.
"The real crunch time is last week and these two weeks. March is the heaviest month. It tapers down by April," said St. Petersburg allergist Dr. Stephen Klemawesch, who does daily pollen counts at his office and has kept records for 15 years.
"The last two seasons have been the two highest seasons over that period," he said. "They were significantly higher than the previous 13 years."
Oak pollen is a common allergy. This week's oak pollen reading for the Tampa Bay area was 1,351 particles per cubic meter, with anything above 200 considered high.
For most allergy sufferers, it doesn't matter exactly how high the pollen count rises, said Leo Matti of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Matti, executive director of the nonprofit group's Florida chapter, suggests that people wear a hat outside and take it off when they get home. That way, they're not rubbing pollen from their hair to their pillow to their nose.
"There's not an awful lot you can do. Try to minimize your exposure outside," said Tampa allergist Dr. Lawrence A. Holfelder. He recommends that people close their windows and run their air conditioners, even on picture-perfect days.
A steady stream of patients is at his door.
"People are basket cases," Holfelder said. "Most people are complaining about eye problems. I'm not seeing a lot of asthma."
Allergy sufferers fight back with pills or shots, eye drops or nasal sprays. Allergies have created a huge market, and new medications continue to be developed.
Just this week, the Food and Drug Administration approved a once-a-day version of Allegra, a prescription antihistamine.
Allegra had about $700-million in worldwide sales last year, trailing its rival Claritin, which had $2.7-billion in sales.
Klemawesch, the St. Petersburg allergist, offered two bits of advice:
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