Something to sneeze about

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By Roger Snodgrass

It would be hard not to notice that allergy season is upon us again. Even without frequent pollen counts from a local monitoring system that used to provide this information, there are clues that an irritating rite of spring has sprung.That rusty sheen some of the junipers are wearing is not friendly. They signify antipersonnel microweapons just waiting for a gust of wind to launch, as some people know better than others.Dr. Alice Bauman of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s AIRNET field team used to count the pollen particles. But she retired last year, leaving the region momentarily without site-specific data on conditions during this sensitive time.That’s about to change, according to local doctors, who said that the New Mexico Allergy Society has purchased the pollen-collecting device which has been relocated from the Human Research Laboratory next to the medical center to the University of New Mexico - Los Alamos. A new researcher, Viviana Balzaretti Maggi, is analyzing data and has nearly finished a certification program to qualify as an official monitor for the National Allergy Bureau.The program, in cooperation with Northern New Mexico College, will also have a station in Española.Even without a full data set, two allergists who practice in Los Alamos and Santa Fe said Monday that amount of the maple, elm and juniper pollen in the air these days has an almost direct correlation with telephone calls and patient’s visits to their offices.“We’re at the peak of the juniper season,” said Dr. James Sussman, who practices with Allergy Partners of New Mexico. “We’re seeing loads of patients who are suffering as a result of their juniper allergy.”“We’re starting to get busy now,” said Dr. Richard Honsinger, who practices at Los Alamos Medical Care Clinic.Both doctors said last year was a record-setter in terms of peak pollen.“Last year, there was pollen on top of pollen.” Honsinger said, “I think this is going to be an average year, maybe half as bad as last year in terms of particle count.”Although winter’s end this year has been as wet or wetter than last year, the difference has been the colder temperatures, said Sussman, which has delayed the onslaught somewhat.

What can we do about it?

 Not everybody gets allergy symptoms. Of those who do come down with some combination of itchy eyes, sneezing and congestion, a small percentage needs medical treatment, the doctors said.“We recommend therapy for symptoms that last more than two to three months and have related complications, such as recurrent infections of sinus or asthma,” Sussman said.Honsinger said some people are unable to wear their contact lenses, are not sleeping because of congestion or find the allergic symptoms interrupting their normal activities.“If your symptoms are disabling, you probably need to see a doctor,” he said. “First we want to test and make sure it’s juniper and not just sleeping with the cat.”Sussman said for severe cases there are injections that block the allergic response before it gets started. In the next few years he said, there should be a new treatment, “sublingual immunotherapy,” that helps turn down an overreacting immune system. That’s better for some people because it doesn’t involve shots.For many others, the problem is just getting through a couple of weeks of annoying symptoms as best they can. Some people swear by herbal remedies like freeze-dried nettles, or various saline solutions for the nose.Many others will take an over-the-counter drug, a generic antihistamine for people with milder symptoms, and an antihistamine with a decongestant for those experiencing greater stuffiness.“Juniper typically peaks the last half of March, but allergies can persist into later spring,” Sussman said. “Pollen that lands on the ground can be blown back into the air and recirculate.”In Los Alamos, cottonwood and scrub oak are yet to come, as well as alder and ash, but none as important as the juniper, Sussman said. Albuquerque has plentiful mulberry pollen, which can be carried on dry winds for hundreds of miles.The laboratory retains a website with pollen data from February 2003 through July 2007 at http://newnet.lanl.gov/Pollen/index.asp.