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ALLERGIES : Sneezing Season : Mold, encouraged by all the rain, is kicking off what may be a particularly bad period for allergy sufferers.


Most folks don't spend a whole lot of time pondering mold. When they do, they usually think of it either as a sign of old age on food, or as an eyesore on bathroom fixtures.

But throughout Ventura County, mold is bidding to become a major topic of conversation.

If your eyes have been watering, if your nose has been running or if your chest has been getting congested, you may already be aware that there is more to mold than meets the eye. Mold, and more to the point mold spores, are kicking off what might be a particularly bad allergy season.

By its agricultural nature, Ventura County is prone to significant quantities of mold. Every time a leaf or piece of produce lands on the ground, mold collects on the biodegradable item and eats it up. Add to that even the slightest amount of moisture and mold spore counts skyrocket.

And that's just the outdoor mold. Moisture (and the occasional roof or wall leak) can cause an increase in indoor mold as well.

Mold allergy problems are not unusual in Ventura County. The typically foggy summers produce enough moisture to cause high increases in spore counts. But years of drought have limited the problem.

The rain of late has changed all that.

"Vegetation will become soaked and while it's wet it will develop a lot of molds growing on it. . . . Within 12 hours of a rainfall, you have as much as a 300% increase in mold spores," Thousand Oaks allergist Donald Unger said. "With rains of this volume, a lot of people are likely to have a very severe mold season." Unger said that thus far he has seen a 10% to 20% increase in allergy patients.

Ventura allergist James Villaveces has also had more business. "I've had a whole bunch of people coming in very sick," he said. "They are having sinus attacks, bronchitis--and are coughing out of control."

Mold allergy symptoms are the same as those of typical hay fever--with a possibility of sneezing, runny nose, stuffy head, shortness of breath and asthma.

Now, if you happen to survive the mold allergy season, hang tight. You're not out of the woods--or garden--just yet. Pollen season is just around the bend.

At this point, local allergists aren't sure what to expect as far as tree, plant and weed pollen goes. One thing they do agree on, however, is that the county is likely to experience a nasty grass pollen season, beginning within the next few weeks and hitting its peak around the end of spring.

"We're expecting one of the bigger grass seasons we've had in recent years," Unger said. But he said that so far he has seen fewer grass allergy problems than usual. "I'm not sure why," he said. "My guess is that there hasn't been enough sunshine to bring out these things yet. But the potential is there."

If last year's rain-aided pollen season was any indication, there's no doubt about that potential.

Dr. Zeb Dyer, an allergy physician assistant at the Santa Barbara Medical Foundation Clinic, has been doing pollen counts for the past 20 years. He observed an increase in the grass count from pre-rain 1990 to the rain years of 1991 and 1992. Dyer said the 1993 grass pollen season might be "a little more volatile" than normal.

"We're still seeing a lot of people getting colds and viruses. We're still seeing a winter pattern of illness," he said. "But in another few weeks we'll be in business. That's when we pay the rent."

Dyer said, however, that much depends on the weather in the weeks and months ahead.

"You could have very lush growth, but if rains hit at strategic times of spring, they could essentially wash out the pollen and reduce the pollen count," said Dyer. "If we have nice weather through spring, we will have a strong hay fever season. It could be much more severe if we get a dry, windy May."

As for other pollens, your guess is as good as the doctors'.

"The big mystery is weeds and trees. I just don't know," Unger said. "Sometimes if there's a huge amount of rain, the tree pollen almost gets washed out. The same is true of weeds. Olive trees, the most important in the area as far as allergies, may not pollinate much at all, with all the rain."

Jerry Revard, the arborist for the city of Ventura, said he expects allergenic trees to grow well. "A lot of people are sensitive to olives, privets, oak trees," he said. "We're seeing the early stages of bud formations right now."

Revard added one more unsettling note for allergy sufferers. "We're not limited to what's growing in our area," he said.

Santa Ana winds bring in pollens from native plants out in the desert, "and some are very allergenic."

Next week's Healthwatch will look at preventive measures and treatments for allergies produced by molds and pollens.

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