By Carolyn Thompson/The Associated Press
There may be a whiff of truth to claims by allergy sufferers who sniffle that this season is, well, a bigger headache than years past.
And now, more bad news: Allergy season is lasting longer, prolonging the misery of the millions of people across the country for whom spring is a punishment, not a pleasure.
"We're a rough place to be if you have allergies," said allergist Marc Cromie of the Chattanooga Allergy Clinic.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation lists Chattanooga fifth out of the 100 "2011 spring allergy capitals," using a scoring system that measures airborne grass, tree and weed pollen; mold spores; the number of allergy medications used per patient; and the number of allergy specialists per capita.
"We had pollen counts of 7,000 last year. Anything over 125 is considered elevated," Cromie said.
Memphis ranked 17th, Augusta ranked 19th and Nashville came in at 39th in this year's rankings. Atlanta made the top half, coming in at 44th.
Heavy snow and rain in some parts of the country, including the Chattanooga area, have nourished a profusion of tree pollen, while a sudden shift to warm, sunny weather has made its release more robust. The deluges and, in some places, flooding, have pumped up the volume on mold. Add in the wind, and the suffering skyrockets.
Warnings about the difficult season have come from allergy specialists from New York to Atlanta, Chicago to California.
Angel Waldron, spokeswoman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, said allergy seasons in general have been getting longer and more challenging.
"We do know that climate change and warmer temperatures are allowing trees to pollinate longer than usual," she said. "Although people feel things are worse than ever before, it's actually because of the longer season. It's a longer time to endure."
Pollen counts and allergy attacks vary from region to region, locality to locality and day to day, and no one entity tracks the full complexity of their ups and downs across the country. But everything is ripe this year for a historic season.
In Chattanooga, pollen counts already have reached the 3,000 mark on some days. Cromie expects ozone levels also to be high heading into the summer months.
It's been an exceptionally rainy spring in much of the country, with several states east of the Mississippi River setting records for the wettest April since 1895. Hamilton County got 8.84 inches in April, more than double the 30-year average.
That means luxuriously blooming trees and a similar effect on mold.
"The mold will grow under the fallen leaves from last season," Dr. Stanley Schwartz, chief of allergy and rheumatology for Kaleida Health and the University at Buffalo. "So if it's very wet, it isn't just the blooming plants but it's also the mold, and many people are allergic to multiple airborne allergens."
But the suffering isn't limited to the South.
The highest tree pollen count in three years triggered a dangerous air quality warning on May 13 in Chicago, where allergist Dr. Joseph Leija warned in a statement: "Itchy eyes, stuffy noses and fatigue will be common among Chicagoans with sensitive respiratory systems."
In Los Angeles, rain, a heat wave and the Santa Ana winds combined for a brutal stretch in February. To the north in San Jose, pollen counts are on the rise with the start of grass season, allergist Dr. Alan Heller said Friday.
The National Allergy Bureau showed high pollen counts in the Northeast last month, including Albany and New York City, with their birch, oak and maple trees. The bureau is part of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Here in Chattanooga, allergies still haven't let up. Cromie said his office has been extremely busy since February.
"We're just smoked," he said. "We're usually busy around the clock."
Local pharmacies have seen a steady stream of allergy sufferers. Julie Roberson, a pharmacist at Signal Mountain Pharmacy, said about 10 people come into her store every day.
Allergy sufferers tend to stream into stores "this time of year, when the pollen's horrible," she said.
But medications used in the past may not be as effective if symptoms are worse this year, Reisacher said. Many of his patients in New York have required multiple drugs, including nasal sprays, oral antihistamines and eye drops.
Madison Sasser, a 21-year-old senior at Belmont University in Nashville, left her doctor's office with two kinds of nose spray and eye drops Thursday after already enduring an allergy-related sinus infection three weeks ago - right before final exams.
"It's been awful," she said. "My eyes have been so itchy and red, and I sneeze and cough. It's just been terrible."
In Dallas, a windy spring is helping to scatter the allergens.
"We've had heavy winds and the tree pollens were in heavy bloom, and all the wind was causing a lot of people a lot of problems," said Jill Weinger, physician's assistant at the Dallas Allergy & Asthma Center, where some patients were returning for treatment after years of absence.
In Louisville, Ky., 20-year-old Jared Casey's glazed eyes scanned the aisles of a Walgreens drugstore Thursday afternoon. He greeted the allergy season with an over-the-counter purchase of Claritin-D at the beginning of February - six weeks earlier than last year.
He switched to Zyrtec at the beginning of May, when his ears began plugging up, and said his symptoms are lasting longer than in years past.
"It's been a lot worse," he said. "My ears have stayed plugged up for two weeks."
Kristen Fennimore, of New Egypt, N.J., counts herself among the more than 35 million Americans plagued by seasonal allergic rhinitis - also known as hay fever, a condition characterized by sneezing, stuffiness, a runny nose and the telltale itchiness in the nose, roof of the mouth, throat, eyes or ears.
Staff writer Carey O'Neil contributed to this story.
Carolyn Thompson reported from Buffalo, N.Y. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik in New York City, Josh Lederman in Trenton, N.J., Pinky Mehta in Louisville and Joe Edwards in Nashville.