TAMPA — From the tips of 150-foot laurel oaks to the emerging springtime dandelion fuzz balls to the Bermuda grass beneath your feet come the tiny particles that clog your sinuses, make your palate itch and cause tears to well in reddened eyes.
It's pollen season in Florida. Again.
Pollen counts are spiking in the Tampa area now and for anyone with any kind of sensitivity toward the microscopic specks, noses will itch and eyes will water for the next two or three weeks, maybe longer.
If you have allergies, you already may be sensing the stuff in the air.
If you don't, you know it's there by the yellow oak pollen dust on hood of your car.
This time of year is always bad for allergy sufferers, said Robert Lockey, director of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine.
“Every season is an epidemic of allergy problems,” he said in a telephone interview this week from San Diego where he had attended the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology annual conference. “Mainly it's because of the oaks. We have 11 species of oaks which start blooming at the end of January and now are going into the peak of their season.
“It will be huge over the next three weeks, unless we get a lot of rain” he said. “It could be catastrophic. The counts are very high.”
The pollen counts begin their crescendo in February and reach their high note about now, according to Pollen.com, which calculates pollen counts across the nation and lists them by ZIP code. Around Tampa, the numbers are near 10.2. The scale counts anything between 9.4 and 12 as a “high” count. People sensitive to pollen can feel the effects with a count as low as 2.5.
A pollen count is the measurement of the number of grains of pollen in a cubic meter of air, typically over a 24-hour period. Pollen counts are measured from low, meaning they affect few individuals, to high, meaning symptoms affect most allergy sufferers.
“To get symptoms, you need 10 pollen particles in the air and sometimes you get 6,000 in one cubic meter,” he said. “If you get that, yes, it's the worst season ever. Every season is worse than the one before. They're all bad.”
The pollen in West Central Florida this time of year is coming mostly from trees as the cypress, cedar and other trees begin their annual bloom. And of the trees, oaks really crank out the pollen, coating cars and windows and anything else that sits outside.
The season could last six to eight weeks, but with any luck the worst will be over by mid to late March, though tree, mold and other plant allergens continue to vex sensitive systems until mid-May.
The best thing to do for people with sensitivities is to stay inside, run the air conditioning and keep the windows closed, Lockey said. “Don't go jogging, bicycling or outdoors,” he said. “Make puzzles or something like that. This is a naturally occurring pollutant. It's Mother Nature's pollutant.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that nearly 17 million American adults and 6.7 million children are prone to hay fever and allergy symptoms, which include a runny nose, nasal congestion, watery and itchy eyes, sinus pain and sneezing and an itchy palate.
Allergists warn people not to assume allergies are just a cold or another bug. If you're feeling miserable for more than 10 days, you should look to the trees as the cause of your malady.
People can get some relief through over-the-counter medications. If those aren't effective, Lockey said, allergy sufferers should see an allergist for a prescription.
“Living in this day and age, there are better medications than ever before in history of the world,” he said. “People should not have to suffer with these problems.”
Not everyone suffers.
Stacey Adkins general manager of the Ultimate Car Wash on U.S. 301 just north of the Selmon Expressway in Brandon, said she already has seen yellow-dusted vehicles coming through. Business, she said, will soar over the next few weeks, as car owners try to get their vehicles back to their original colors.
“We're near a bunch of apartment complexes,” she said. “They're all around this area and the people who live there have to park outside. They don't have the luxury of a garage. So, yeah, we'are already seeing it.”
Pollen season is huge in her business, Adkins said.
“That and love bug season,” she said. “We call that black gold. Black gold and yellow gold.”