RAF LAKENHEATH, England — People are sniffling in Spain, saying “Gesundheit” in Germany, rubbing their eyes in Italy and grabbing Benadryl in Britain.

The allergy season is in full swing. And in some parts of Europe, pollen has produced its own wave of shock and awe, sending a higher than average number of allergy sufferers sneezing their way to the pharmacy and clinic.

Dr. (Maj.) Scott Harper, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe command consultant on allergies and immunizations, said the sunny, warm weather in England, coupled with just enough rain, has caused “copious amounts of grass pollens to be released.”

Grass pollens affect 95 percent of all hay fever sufferers.

Harper, who is also chief of allergies and immunizations at the RAF Lakenheath hospital, said the grass pollen count in England has often exceeded 100 parts per cubic meter of air and sometimes gone past 150 in recent weeks. Allergy symptoms kick in seriously at about 50 parts per cubic meter.

“It’s been ideal weather for the pollen counts to go high,” he said.

As a result, Harper said the traffic in the hospital seeking allergy treatments has been heavy.

“This year I’ve seen more referrals on average than in other years,” he said. “This summer’s been very, very busy.”

The season for grass allergies is beginning to wane, but much of Europe has seen higher than normal pollen counts. The highest has been in the U.K., where the counts frequently were very high by the standard pollen measurement.

The problem has been less severe in other parts of Europe, but that doesn’t mean allergy sufferers have a year off from runny noses and watery eyes.

Records from European organizations show the pollen count on the continent was up moderately during May and early June, but is returning to normal now.

“It seems that this has been a pretty bad year,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cherie Blank, clinical nurse in the allergy and immunization clinic at Naval Hospital Rota in Spain.

“We’ve had a lot of people with symptoms that are worse than before.”

There has been enough rain for grasses to produce the pollen and more than enough wind to distribute it, she said, prompting a lot of calls in the last month from allergy sufferers seeking relief.

She said she couldn’t support her hypothesis with hard numbers, but “it seems like people were coming out of the woodwork.”

Dr. (Cmdr.) Peter Marco at the U.S. Navy hospital in Naples, Italy, said the parade of allergy sufferers has not increased this year. But, he said, a seasonal tradition of Italian farmers is causing problems.

The farmers burn off their fields to rid them of vegetation before planting and the smoke is troubling to already sensitive sinuses of allergy patients.

“Now they have an irritant on top of their allergic condition,” Marco said.

Dr. (Col.) Stephen Garramone, chief of allergies and immunization at the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, said people with allergies think every spring is the worst they’ve ever experienced.

“Allergies are annoying. That’s why that’s the case,” he said.

But he hasn’t seen any more patients this year than in past allergy seasons.

“My [patient] visits are the same. I’m not behind,” he said.

Nothing to sneeze at

Studies show that about 37 million Americans suffer from hay fever, the layman’s term for allergic rhinitis, resulting in about 17 million office visits to health care providers.

A 1998 study found that absenteeism due to allergies cost American companies $250 million a year.

Despite the prevalence of allergies, it was not until 1873 that the cause of hay fever was diagnosed. Until then, people had no idea why their eyes burned and nose itched every spring.

It’s possible, Harper said, for people to develop an allergy after moving to a new country.

“That’s actually what we see a lot here,” he said. “It takes about three years to become allergic to a new pollen, something you’ll only see seasonally.”

The first year, he said, there will no symptoms and the person is unaware of the lurking allergy. Slight symptoms might show up the second year.

And the third year, Harper said, is like “getting hit by a Mack truck.”

For people fortunate enough not to suffer from allergies, the complaints of suffering colleagues, friends and family members may seem like whining. But the discomfort level is great and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

“It is more than nuisance. It really affects their quality of life,” said Marco. “They are restricted to what they can and cannot do.”

Blank said, “It’s exhausting. Their eyes are burning. They get headaches. They’re not sleeping as well.”

Nobody has to tell Michael Jones, who was at the allergy clinic at RAF Lakenheath recently.

“I get really bad headaches, sneezing, runny nose,” the 13-year-old said wearily.

The right treatment

Most people with allergies can help themselves with over-the-counter products such as Benadryl and Actifed or with help from their primary physician. Garramone said only about 10 percent need further help from an allergist.

These drugs do two things. They subdue the histamine that makes the eyes and nose itch and they decrease the inflammation in the nose.

But there is danger in the cure. Most over-the-counter remedies cause drowsiness, enough sometimes to be debilitating. Harper said those drugs may impair a person’s ability to perform as much as excess consumption of alcohol.

Garramone added, “Contrary to popular believe, you don’t get used to it. The impairment remains.”

Physicians have been able to provide drugs that do not cause drowsiness for about a decade, but those medicines were not available commercially.

“It’s only been within about the last year that they’ve been available over-the-counter,” said Harper.

That, of course, improves the lot of allergy sufferers, but they still only go so far. The best treatment is the allergy shot. But has limitations.

“They don’t work right away,” said Harper. “We treat you this year to protect you next year.”

To be effective, the shots must be endured weekly or more often for several months. They are then administered every couple weeks for three years or so to be fully effective.

After that, the person will probably still have allergy symptoms, but they won’t be as severe and can probably be treated with commercial drugs.

“It’s not a cure,” Garramone said.

The shots are custom-designed for each patient, Harper said, after an evaluation determines what produces the allergic reaction. Tiny portions of various pollens and seeds are injected under the skin and the response to each is observed.

The shot is then prepared for that individual patient. Harper said a mix-up could have serious consequences.

Michael Jones, the 13-year-old allergy patient, had been taking commercial drugs, but he was waiting for a shot on a recent day.

“It was just getting to be too much,” said Kimberly Jones, his mother.

Staff Sgt. Alexander Villa, 26, was similarly fed up with the annual rite of allergy symptoms. He said he is allergic to everything but mold.

Health-care providers said allergy sufferers should also try to avoid the things that cause their symptoms. Keep windows closed. Wash your hands and face frequently. A good washing of hair each evening can also help since pollens land there.

But there is really no way to avoid the microscopic pollens that float invisibly on the slightest breeze.

“There’s not much you can do except stay inside and use the air conditioner,” said Marco. “But you’ve got to live your life.”

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