April 17, 2008

High Pollen Count Worsens Sacramento Allergies

You know it's bad when Fido is sneezing and Pumpkin has itchy, watery eyes.

With tons of pollen propelled through the air by gusty winds, even the Sacramento region's dogs and cats are miserable.

Spring is always allergy season, but this year the air has been plagued by especially high counts of pollen, those fine powders released by trees, grasses and weeds that offend the senses.

For Leah Tramontini, allergy season runs February through June -- when she might otherwise be taking a nice hike or planting vegetables in the garden.

Instead, the Davis businesswoman remains inside most of the day.

"I have to shut all the windows and close all the doors," she said. "I cannot stand the pollen. If I go outside, I then have to change my clothes, wash my hair and make sure I remove all the pollen away from my face. So I don't want to go out because it's a lot of trouble."

Jennifer Worden confirmed allergy sufferers' worst fears:

"We have a very unpleasant pollen season, significantly more this year than I remember in a long time," said the registered nurse who works in a Roseville allergist's office, and serves as the region's certified pollen counter. "I think it's because we had rain at a specific time, then sun, then boom, the trees popped right out, so many all at one time."

At least once a week, Worden climbs a ladder to the flat roof of Dr. Sunil Perera's office where the special pollen and spore collection machine runs 24 hours a day.

She reaches into the device and pulls out a silicone-coated slide, where all kinds of misery-causing stuff has collected.

Under the microscope, she counts pollens of various sorts, then reports to the National Allergy Bureau, a service of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Last month the leading culprit was mulberry tree pollens. This month, oaks are to blame, she said.

That's trouble for Phil Kitchen, owner of Three Palms nursery west of Davis on Hog Slough, a place surrounded by oaks and thousands of acres of farmland.

It doesn't help that Kitchen grows and sells pretty much every kind of tree, grass and flower.

"I have allergies really bad and it has grown into asthma," he said. Kitchen takes an antihistamine, asthma medication and gets regular allergy shots. He also tracks the region's daily pollen count.

When he awoke to windy conditions Wednesday, he knew it would be a rough day. "Of all the weather, wind bothers me most," he said.

Wednesday's breeze was blowing out of the north at 25 mph, with gusts up to 30 mph, said National Weather Service forecaster Johnnie Powell.

"Most allergies come from the north wind, because that is coming from the mountains, and that is where you've got all your trees, and plants and all that good stuff," said Powell, who also takes daily medication to manage seasonal sniffles and itchy eyes.

Dr. Michael McCormick, an allergist who works in Grass Valley and Auburn, said the period at the end of flu season and the beginning of allergy season is always hectic.

"This is as busy as I get," he said on a break between patients Wednesday. "The flu and cold and allergy seasons are synergistic. If you have allergies and also get a cold, your symptoms are much worse than if you just had one."

And although they can't exactly articulate their complaints, dogs and cats feel the pollen pain, too.

While some sneeze and wheeze, most canine and feline allergy sufferers get itchy faces and dogs may chew their paws till they bleed.

"My own dog has allergies," said Dr. Sue Barrett, a veterinarian at the Watt Avenue Pet Hospital, where she treats allergic pets. "She itches around her eyes and loses the hair."

Problems can grow after walks in the early morning or at dusk, she said, when pollen counts are highest. She prescribes antihistamines for cats and dogs and even human psoriasis drugs for itchy dogs.

Barrett, too, takes antihistamines for her own symptoms. But not everyone is so afflicted.

Although he's heard the grousing from staffers, Todd Steverson, the new manager of the Sacramento River Cats baseball team, said he's never suffered from allergies, even during his years in Stockton.

He suggested folks should simply toughen up.

"It's in the mind," said the team's gritty boss. "I think people let it get to them when they get sick sometimes. You can't let it overtake you."