By SCOTT SHEWFELT, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - If you could stop rubbing your itchy, watery eyes for one second, put down the tissue and look around, you'd see an increasing number of sneezing, sniffling sad sacks just like you.
Warm weather is sending more patients to Maryland allergists than ever before, but whether the weather is influenced by global warming is up in the air.
Research has shown that ragweed pollinates heavier with higher carbon dioxide levels, said David Golden, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University. And carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, one of the culprits in global warming. Yet, Golden cautioned, people should be wary of trying to pin anything on global warming, he said.
Maryland has had warmer temperatures in recent years, and "dryness and hot weather tell the plant it is time to shed pollen," said Edgar Moctezuma, professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"The warm winters that we've experienced recently have prolonged the mold season and also led to earlier, more prolonged, tree pollen seasons," said Martha White, an allergist with the Institute for Asthma and Allergy in Wheaton and Chevy Chase.
Factors other than warm winters and long summers may contribute to the increase in allergies, White said. Youth immunization programs can actually contribute to increased allergic responses, and vehicle exhaust fumes can likewise alter the immune system.
Whatever the reason she said, "we're seeing more allergy patients each year."
There has been a 100 percent increase in the number of allergy patients in the past 15 years, Golden said.
When it comes to allergies, "there are no good years," Golden said, "there are bad years and terrible years."
So far in 2007, the pollen levels have been high in Maryland.
During the first week of April, "with the warm weather, we saw all-time record levels of tree pollen," Golden said.
The tree pollen season usually peaks in the last week of April. "If it rains every couple of days, it keeps the pollen counts down," Golden said, adding a dry spell during the fast-approaching peak of the season will lead to a "horrendous," level of pollen dispersal.
The most common allergy is hay fever, which affects nearly 36 million people in the United States annually. Pollen from trees, grasses and weeds is often to blame and 90 percent of the time it is curable through allergy shots, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.
In Maryland, the most egregious pollen offenders are ragweed, cereal crops and trees, especially the oak, Moctezuma said.
But drawing global warming and allergy conclusions based strictly on pollen counts is "a stretch," Golden said.
Golden uses the example of Hurricane Agnes in 1972, which wiped out much of Maryland's ragweed and reduced pollen numbers. If the global warming trend does cause more hurricanes, those storms could hypothetically wipe out entire areas of allergy-causing vegetation, and thus reduce allergic reactions.
Shaz Siddiqi, allergist and immunologist with offices in Montgomery Village, Frederick, Olney and Mount Airy, said he has seen a burst in tree pollen allergies in both children and adults this year and is even busier than last.
Pollen affects every person differently, and each species of plant produces unique pollen strains, Siddiqi said. Maryland has a wide variety of vegetation, and he has noticed an increasing number of patients who have only developed allergies since moving to the state.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America annually ranks "the most challenging places to live with spring allergies." In 2006, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore were respectively the 9th and 10th worst in the country. This year, Baltimore improved to 66th and the District to 71st.
But the improvement didn't come because allergens have gone away. The ranking improved because more physicians treating the problems have moved in, said Angel Waldron a spokeswoman for the Foundation.
There are now 138 board-certified allergists practicing in Maryland, with many having multiple offices to handle the growing demand.