Many Southern Californians cheered this season's torrential rains, which ended a seven-year dry spell. But the exceptionally wet season, which has spawned an explosion of plant growth, is drawing anything but applause from allergy sufferers.
It is prompting what doctors call "the allergic salute"--more commonly referred to as wiping your runny or itchy nose.
With higher volumes of pollen floating around in the air, allergists are predicting that legions--as many as 20% of South Bay residents--soon will be giving the salute, in between fits of sneezing, coughing, wheezing and watering eyes. It can also exacerbate asthma.
"Oh yeah, my allergies are really bad," Debbie Weaver said with a sniffle as she waited at a San Pedro allergist's office last week. "I've been treated for allergies for 13 years and this season has been the worst of them all.
"Every day it rained, I cried," said the mother of two, who still sees the San Pedro doctor even though she has moved to Ontario. Weaver said she has temporarily halted outings to a neighborhood park in Ontario because it aggravates her and her children's allergic conditions. "The rain was supposed to be so good, but I knew it was going to be a problem."
As bad as it may seem now, the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America says the worst is yet to come. Despite the rains, pollen counts remain low. The true measure of how bad the season will be won't come for a couple of months, said a spokeswoman for the foundation.
"This year it is bound to (become) even worse, but it will be a little delayed on the onset because it keeps raining," said Dr. Andre Nel, a UCLA allergy researcher.
If allergy sufferers are miserable now, blame grass pollen, allergists say. Pollen is the male fertilizing agent of budding plants and is composed of yellowish powdery granules. Allergists expect the grass pollen season to peak in about a month.
"There is an exponential increase of pollen in the air following a rainy preseason like the one we just had," said Dr. Miles E. Stone, the San Pedro allergist who treats Weaver.
Because of the amount of pollen from plants this season, some doctors say they are now treating more first-time patients.
"There's a lot of new people coming in who have never been in before," said Dr. Richard Harris, an allergist with practices in Beverly Hills and Westchester.
Doctors recommend several ways to lessen the impact of allergies: Make sure house windows are closed, especially at night when sleeping, and use air conditioning. Keep car windows rolled up when driving.
Also, try to cut down on activities between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. when pollen is usually emitted. Make an effort to stay indoors when pollen counts or the humidity are high and on windy days. Check with your doctor or allergist for medications that may alleviate symptoms.
Even with precautions, however, sometimes there is no escape from pollen.
"Even if you have a rock garden around your home, these pollens travel miles and miles in the air currents," Harris pointed out. "It's hard to escape."
Robert Ahkoui can't escape. The San Pedro sales representative says he is suffering more this year than in recent memory. He has cut back his favorite hobby of gardening and is making sure he receives his medical treatments, including shots and prescription drugs.
"Mother Nature, you can't mess with that. The only thing you can do is to be prepared," Ahkoui said.
Even after allergy sufferers get over grass pollen, more trouble may be on the way.
"In late August and early September, you are going to see a lot of weed pollen," Harris said. "It's going to be a tough fall."