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O.C Sneezes, Wheezes in Winds' Wake


If you had that itchy-eyed, raw-skinned, tight-chested, stuffy, sneezy, wheezy sort of feeling for the last few days, there's good news on the horizon.

The cursed Santa Ana winds, which each fall deliver misery to thousands of coastal residents, are just about through with their first assault of the season.

For now, "this episode is pretty much over," said Kris Farnsworth, meteorologist for WeatherData Inc., which supplies forecasts to The Times.

Unfortunately, doctors say, the winds leave a trail of suffering in their wake, and some of their ill effects will linger for a few more days. And there are more Santa Anas expected--there are usually three or four episodes per autumn.

The dry, hot winds from the Great Basin blow in all kinds of tiny irritants and particles--mostly weed and grass pollen, mold spores and dust--which stir up allergies and aggravate eye, skin and respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema.

"It has profound effects," said Dr. Stanley P. Galant, director of pediatric allergy and immunology at UC Irvine. "As the wind blows toward the ocean, it sweeps everything in its path into the eyes and nose and lungs of susceptible individuals."

This time around, some folks didn't wait to see a doctor on Monday--they high-tailed it to the local emergency room during the weekend.

"We were extremely busy because of respiratory problems of all kinds," said Dr. Bill Honigman, an emergency room physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Anaheim. "When people can't breathe, they have to see somebody immediately."

The breezes can trigger life-threatening breathing problems, sending people to intensive-care units and forcing them onto ventilators. But most often, immunologists and other physicians say, they simply make people feel lousy.

Allergists and immunologists all over Orange County dealt with the fallout on Monday.

"They come in with itchy red, watery eyes; sneezy, itchy, runny noses; nasal congestion, flare-ups of eczema (an inflammation of the skin). . . . You can also see an increase in asthma, because of the pollen," said Dr. Rhonda Myers, an Irvine allergy, asthma and immunology specialist.

The hot, dry air just makes things worse.

"It dries out the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract (and) exacerbates the allergies of the eyes, nose, lungs and skin," said Dr. Donald Levy of Orange, another busy allergist and immunologist.

About 20% of the population, Levy said, suffers some form of allergy, which is an exaggerated or inappropriate response of the immune system. During the Santa Anas, doctors generally treat reactions with medication--inhaled bronchodilators for asthmatics, for example, or antihistamines such as Seldane.

Doctors said allergic effects such as inflammation in the sinuses can make people more susceptible to viral infections--compounding the effects of a bad reaction.

But the misery is not confined to those with allergies: Many others find that the breezes rob their bodies of moisture, causing skin rashes or eye irritations. The winds are especially hard on those who wear contact lenses and those who already suffer from chronically dry eyes.

"Basically we live in the desert, where you get a lot of tear evaporation and retain less moisture," said Dr. Richard H. Keates, chairman of UC Irvine's ophthalmology department. "If you add this hot wind, it just exaggerates it. One of the most common things people have is dry eyes."

Another danger is that floating particles stirred up by the incoming breezes can land smack in the eyes.

To avoid the brunt of the Santa Ana breezes, doctors recommend that people stay inside as much as possible, with their windows and doors shut. Running an air conditioner can not only relieve the heat, but act as an air filter.

Parents of children with allergies and respiratory problems should handle the Santa Ana episodes just as they would a serious smog alert, doctors said.

Other recommendations include:

* Taking allergy and other medications--such as inhaled steroids--preventively, before symptoms occur;

* Running humidifiers at night to replace lost moisture in the air;

* Applying sunscreen and other oils to moisten the skin;

* Wearing sunglasses;

* Applying artificial tear preparations and allergy drops to the eyes.

* REMAINING VIGILANT: O.C. firefighters stay on alert as hot, dry Santa Anas abate. B2

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