Sitting in a waiting room full of sniffling and sneezing people, Keith Varga can tell this allergy season is different from most. It's worse.
"I've had allergies since I was a child, but they usually don't flare up until mid-March or early April, never this early," said Varga, of Santa Ana.
What's producing so many red eyes and itchy noses? A season of sustained rainfall. While the hills may be green and lush, for allergy sufferers, the hills are also alive with pollen and mold spores.
"Whenever you have a lot of rain like we've been having, that increases the pollen count because of better growth in plants," said Dr. Joel E. Lewis, director of the Allergy and Asthma Institute Medical Center of Southern California in Costa Mesa. "This creates more problems for current sufferers, and those who haven't had allergies in the past may see some symptoms."
Since July 1, 13.37 inches of rain has fallen in Orange County, up 4 inches from the average for the season to date.
Although nobody keeps precise figures, some allergists are predicting at least a 20% increase in patients.
The allergy season, which starts in March and usually lasts into mid-June, can be misery for sufferers, with symptoms ranging from watery nose and eyes to hives and other skin rashes causing many to miss work or school.
"Unlike the East Coast and the Midwest where the cold weather kills off the pollen, we have year-round pollination in California," said Lewis.
As Varga and so many others well know.
"I don't get much sleep at night," complained Varga.
Another sufferer, Michael Sanchez, can relate.
"If I don't have medication, I can barely make it up the stairs," said Sanchez, who suffers from pollen-induced asthma. "When I come here, I get the full treatment. Shots, everything. I have three breath inhalers," said the Newport Beach resident and semi-professional soccer player.
Because the pollen count is higher in the early morning, Sanchez puts off his exercises until after 11 a.m.
According to Lewis, who expects to see a 20% increase in patients per day during the high season, grass and tree pollen are the first to affect sufferers, while weed pollen begins to kick in around April.
Meanwhile, allergy patients keep lining up to see their doctors.
"We've been pretty busy these past few days so that tells us something is happening in the air," said Dr. John Chiu of the Allergy Medical Group in Newport Beach, who expects to see a 25% increase in patients per day during the spring.
Chiu said that on average, 20% to 25% of Americans are affected by allergies resulting in $10 billion spent on treatment and 8.4 million doctor visits each year. Some 3.5 million Americans call in sick and another 2 million miss school due to allergic reactions.
To help combat the allergic reactions, doctors are telling their patients to stay indoors as much as possible, especially during hot, windy and dry conditions.
"Keep the windows closed and use an air conditioner or air purifier if you have one," said Lewis.
Joining the battle this year, in addition to the over-the-counter antihistamines, is a new prescription nasal spray called Astelin.
"I'm so excited about this new spray," said Chiu, who has given it to some of his patients for testing. "It is so unique because it works in about 15 minutes, whereas some antihistamines need several days to take full effect."
Chiu added that 90% of allergy patients can be treated with antihistamines and other drugs, while the other 10% may have something a little more serious such as a sinus infection.
Theresa Beechler, a nurse at the Allergy and Asthma Care Specialists in Anaheim, is advising patients to avoid exercising in the early morning between 5 and 10 a.m., when trees and plants pollinate, and in the early evening when the pollen settles. She suggests that people who suffer from allergies call (800) 9POLLEN to get the week's pollen count so they can plan their activities around high pollen count times.
Other tips from the American Lung Assn. for allergy sufferers include breathing through your nose, because it is a natural air filter. Also, be sure to wash your hair before going to bed since pollen clings to hair and can rub off on pillows and trigger allergies overnight.