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This week, red and silver maples and black birch began flowering in the southernmost parts of the state, setting off the beginnings of a pollen explosion allergists are expecting will make for a fierce allergy season this spring.
"It will be an intense year," said Dr. Doron Ber of Shoreline Allergy & Asthma Associates, which has offices in East Lyme and Mystic. "The South has been experiencing it already."
According to the National Allergy Bureau, pollen counts Friday at its monitoring station at Waterbury Hospital showed moderate levels of tree pollen, mostly coming from cedars, maple, box elder and pine, and low levels of mold. The amount of the powdery grains plants emit as part of the seed production process is expected to escalate in the coming weeks, potentially setting off a good deal of sneezing, congestion, watery eyes and other symptoms for allergy sufferers.
"With the kind of winter we've had, we can expect a heavy pollen season," said Dr. George Sprecace of Allergy Associates of New London. "We've already at least doubled our usual number of new patients coming in the last three to four weeks."
Sprecace said higher-than-normal mold levels in the last part of winter, set off by freezing and thawing cycles, were already aggravating those with sensitivity, and the onslaught of pollen isn't far behind. He recommends allergy sufferers start their medications now, even if they're not feeling the effects yet. "It's better to start early versus waiting until you're all plugged up," he said.
Sprecace recommends over-the-counter medications with loratadine, such as Claritin, or fexofenadine, such as Allegra, for those with mild to moderate symptoms, and prescription medications and nasal sprays for those with more severe cases. Leaving allergies untreated, he warned, sets the stage for sinus infections and other upper respiratory ailments.
Ber said he started telling his patients to take their seasonal allergy medications two weeks ago, adding that some of the medications aren't fully effective until after two weeks. "And it's easier to control milder symptoms than waiting until they're more pronounced," he said.
Waterbury allergist and immunologist Dr. Christopher Randolph oversees the pollen monitoring station at Waterbury Hospital. Due to climate change, he said, the pollen season has been starting about a month earlier and ending a month later, now extending from March through October. "I anticipate this is going to be a tough season," he said.
What's responsible for this spring's heavier-than-normal downpour of pollen? Blame the long, hard winter, but not for the reasons some assume - that the trees are significantly behind schedule and releasing pollen all at once.
Jeff Ward, senior scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, said this winter's unusually cold temperatures and ample snowfall were actually good for the state's forests. Native trees are well-adapted to the duration of below-freezing temperatures such as those experienced this winter, and the snowpack protected the roots from damage from ice and animals, he said. The gradual melting left the soil well-saturated, meaning tree roots have a deep reservoir of moisture to draw from when trees leaf out.
"It's good for the tree roots to have all that snow," Ward said. "Everything's healthier, so they'll put out more flowers, and more pollen. It was a good winter for plants."
To measure the tiny airborne irritants called pollen, staff in the Hematology Department at Waterbury Hospital use an instrument called a Burkard sampler that's installed on the roof of the building.
Every weekday, someone goes up to the roof to remove a greased slide that's been rotating on the sampler for 24 hours and brings it back to the lab where the slide is stained.
"We look at the slide under a microscope and count the pollen grains, then do a calibration of grains per cubic meter," JoAnn Neddermann, clinical lab scientist at the pollen counting station, said Friday.
The station, operating at Waterbury Hospital since 1986, is the only one in Connecticut certified by the National Allergy Bureau. It collects pollen counts from April 1 to Oct. 1.
For daily pollen counts, visit www.aaaai.org/global/nab-pollen-counts.aspx.
- Judy Benson