The Big Sneeze
Just two weeks to ragweed time, when flying pollen drives millions crazy. Or with some folk it’s horses
KA-KA-KA-KA—CHUMFH this dab sneezing I thig I’ll If go I out cadt ob stob by mide!
That’s not funny. In fact, to the 200,000 or so Canadians who every spring, summer and fall suffer almost unbearable miseries from hay fever it is perhaps the unfunniest thing they have ever heard.
Hay fever is one of the most cussed at and least understood of all human maladies. It keeps people from their work, causes them to isolate themselves in specially air-conditioned rooms, wear grotesque masks and use tissue handkerchiefs by the carton. It even keeps golfers off the links.
When it strikes hard it can bring teare to the eyes of the strongest man. His nose becomes red and raw and stuffed up, his mouth and ears suffer from an unbearable itching, he has headaches, insomnia and no appetite. His sinuses may plug up, his skin become blotchy, his chest and stomach ache. And when he starts sneezixxg . . ; look out! He will run up a score of 50 to 100 consecutive explosions without giving you time to say “Gesundheit.”
The cause of all this sneezing and misery lies in the pollen and other dust that constantly flies about in the air. To most people these dusts don’t mean a thing, but to anyone who is allergic or sensitive to the proteins in them, they are pure poison.
The latest theory on the reason for this, and the one most generally accepted—-though not yet definitely proven—is that all the trouble is due to a mysterious body chemical called histamine. When certain parts of the body come into contact with an allergy-producing substance, such as the protein in a pollen grain, the affected cells release histamine in great quantities. It is really supposed to be a protection, but something goes wrong.
According to Dr. G. F. Code of the Mayo Clixxic, histamine has different effects at different sites. It causes muscular contraction, accounting for the tightness in the chest during a hay fever attack. It can cause hives and a red, blotchy skin. It can make your eyes run, your nose get stuffed up. It also affects the digestive glands, which may be what gives hay feverites a tummy ache.
The release of histamine is what makes you swell up and hurt when a bee stings you. Sprayed on a guinea pig it. will cause hay fever symptoms and ultimately death.
Blame It on Grandpa
HAY FEVER can happen to anybody, old or young, white or black, rich or poor, male or female, genius or dolt, city slicker or son of the soil. The oxxly people who seem comparatively ixnmune are the North American Indians.
You can’t catch hay fever from anybody else no matter how much they sneeze on you. You either got it or you ain’t. Just why some people react to one pollen, others to another, and others not at all, nobody seems to know for sure. Scientists have determixxed however that hay fever, like other allergic disorders, such as asthma, hives, eczema, is hereditary. If one or more of your parents have it it’s a pretty sure bet that you will too. Or if your grandparents had it and your parents missed it there is still a good chance that one of these days you’ll start sneezixxg.
Different people get it at different ages. It has been seen in babies a few hours old, and Dr. R. M. Balyeat reports a case that didn’t show up until the patient was 75 years old. The commonest age would seem to be between 20 and 30, though some doctors think it earlier than this. For some reason boys uxxder the age of 15 are more likely to have hay fever than girls of the same age. Between that age and 45 it switches around so that, in this age group, there are nearly twice as many women as men sufferers. After that it’s even Stephen.
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In nearly ail eases your susceptibility to hay fever will stay with you as long as you live. There is absolutely no truth to the notion that it will go away in seven years. Of course, no matter how sensitive you may be, you will never get hay fever unless you run into your specific dust. If you spend your entire life in a submarine you’ll be pretty safe.
There is no record of anyone actually dying of hay fever—-although many sometimes wish they would—but it is blamed for helping to bring about such ailments as chronic conjunctivitis, secondary sinusit is, and chronic asthma. And the immediate miseries are considered bad enough by the estimated four and a half to five million sufferers in the United States and their 200,000 brothers in misery in Canada.
A Matter of Breeding
It’s impossible to get exact figures but it is pretty well agreed that hay fever is increasing in Canada. People travel about more than they used to. More people are getting back to nature come summertime—close to pollen-producing plants. Also, many ailments that formerly went by such names as summer colds, rhinitis, recurrent catarrh are now recognized as hay fever. Most important of all is the increase of ragweed and other hay fever-producing plants.
The plants for hayfeverites to be wary of are “anemophilous” or windpollinated varieties that produce an abundance of light dry pollen grains containing a hay fever excitant. Most of these plants have two flowers which don’t look like flowers at all because they have no bright colors or odor. One is the male flower containing the stamens where the pollen is produced, and the other is the female flower containing the pistil, in the ovary of which the pollen grain unites with the egg cell to make a seed. To get the pollen from the l op of the stamens to the top of the pistil, one male plant will spread raillions and millions of pollen grains into the air. Most of them go to waste, a few find their way to their proper destination, and too many of them get in touch with any hayfeverites handy.
Generally speaking, you don’t have to worry about any tree or plant that produces a colorful, sweet-smelling flower. These are insect-pollinated flowers and the color and odor are to attract bees and other insects who come to get the nectar and carry the pollen from flower to flower. This pollen is heavy and sticky so that it will cling to the body and legs of insects and it rarely floats about in the air.
This pretty well exonerates the roses, dandelions, golden rods and sunflowers which have been blamed for causing a lot of hay fever. Goldenrod used to get the blame for being the big cause of fall hay fever. Of course if you are allergic to goldenrod or roses and bury your snoot deep in a bouquet and take a mighty whiff—you will start sneezing.
Actually there are three kinds of hay fever, according to the pollinating season of the plants that cause them. First is the spring or tree variety of hay fever which comes in April and May. This is when sneezing starts for persons sensitive to any of the tree pollens, chief troublemakers being the elm, maple, willow, walnut, oak, birch, poplar, ash and butternut. Fruit trees,
flowering shrubs and vines are innocent.
Next, during June and the early part of July, comes summer or grass hay fever. The chief offending grasses are timothy (by far the worst), orchard grass, redtop, June grass, Kentucky blue grass, couch grass, rye, and others. Most of these, like the hay fever trees, are found in every province. About the only way to avoid their pollen is to keep out of the tall grass and, if possible, get away into the woods somewhere during this season.
Fine Kind of Ambrosia!
But it is the third type, fall or ragweed hay fever, that is really the bad one. It starts around the middle of August and lasts until freeze-up, and it is responsible for about 80% of all hay fever sneezes. Common ragweed (.Ambrosia Artemisiifolia L.) is far and away the worst enemy that hay fever sufferers have during this season; but giant ragweed, Russian thistle, pigweed, cocklebur, hemp, goosefoot, buckwheat and plantain may also cause trouble in some localities.
Every hay fever sufferer would do well to learn all there is to know about ragweed. Although nothing like as abundant as in the United States, ragweed is common in Canada, particularly east of the Great Lakes; and according to surveys the weed is spreading farther afield as more and more bush is cleared away. The older settled portions of Ontario and Quebec are the worst infested. The Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, and parts of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, also have a good supply of the weed. The Gaspe on the other hand is practically free. Anywhere north of latitude 54 in Canada is practically free from it.
In the West there is very little common ragweed, but the giant ragweed, along with Russian thistle and sage, are keeping the handkerchiefs busy.
The Stuff’s Everywhere
According to an extensive ragweed pollen count from the atmosphere secured by Oren C. Durham a few years ago the worst Canadian city for hay fever sufferers is Toronto, which showed 1,600 per cubic yard of air.
Montreal came next with a score of 806 and then Ottawa with 623. Winnipeg and Port Arthur show only about half as great an incidence of ragweed pollen as Montreal, while Prince Albert was the safest city of all for hayfeverites having a count of only six.
In the areas where it is found ragweed grows just about everywhere— along the roadside, in vacant lots, in gardens, and in hay and grain crops. It usually shows up after the crop has been harvested and spreads rapidly over the field.
Ragweed grows from one to three feet high. The stem is straight, slightly hairy and has many branches. The leaves are finely divided, are shaped something like carrot leaves, and are dark green on top and light green underneath. It has two flowers. The male flowers are yellowish in color and grow at the top of the plant and at the ends of the branches. The female flowers are inconspicuous and greenish. The pollen is small, extremely buoyant and dry. Botanists tell us that one ragweed plant will produce millions of sneeze-producing pollen grains in 24 hours, and these have been known to travel over a hundred miles on a dry windy day.
Certain proteins found in dusts other than plant pollen will start “perennial” hayfeverites sneezing any time, winter or summer, whenever they come into contact with the dust that irritates them. Ordinary house dust causes hayfever in some people. Others can’t be around animals since they are sensitive to the flakes of skin or dander which all animals shed. Some people are allergic to mold spores, furs, feathers, silk, wool, coffee beans, cosmetics, certain foods and so on.
One doctor tells of the case of a man who suffered from hay fever every night during the summer and was all right during the winter months. It turned out that he was allergic to silk and as soon as summer came his wife switched from flannelette pyjamas to a silk nightie.
In the past hay fever sufferers have spent money like the water that poured from their eyes and noses for every kind of quack cure that came on the market. Although as early as 1890 Dr. Charles Harrison Blackley proved conclusively that pollen was the cause of hay fever, up until the turn of the century doctors were largely in the dark about what to prescribe for the rapidly increasing malady.
Present-day hayfeverites are far better off. Although there are still a few patent cures kicking around, there is one treatment which gives definite relief in practically all cases. This is what the allergists call desensitization and it works on much the same principal as getting yourself vaccinated for smallpox. That is, your body builds up immunity to the pollen by having pollen extract injected into it in regulated doses.
Dr. Leonard Moon, an Englishman, originated this treatment in 1911. Suppose you are a hay fever sufferer and you go to an allergist to get the business. First, by means of diagnostic tests, he finds out which particular pollen is giving you the sneezes. To do this he selects from his armory of pollen extracts the ones which, from a study of your case history, he considers might be doing the damage and tests you with them one at a time. About five units of the extract are scratched or injected into (not under) the skin of your forearm or back. If you are not allergic to that pollen nothing happens, If you are, about 20 minutes after the injection you will get a positive reaction in the form of a little itchy bump like a hive with red all around it. The allergist can tell how sensitive you are by the size of the hive and by how red the skin gets around it.
• Well, let’s say that you react positively to timothy. If you want to prevent sneezes you will take regular injections of timothy pollen extract in gradually increasing amounts well before the timothy season starts, and you will keep right on taking them until your resistance has been raised to the point where you are no longer sensitive. Your doctor will probably want you to take shots the whole year round just to be on the safe side. If you are lucky you may build up enough immunity after a few years to permit you to discontinue the injections, at least for a while.
For hay fever sufferers who don’t like, can’t afford, or can’t be bothered with the above treatment there are a few other remedies. Some people claim to have obtained relief from use of nasal sprays and jellies containing ephedrine or benzedrine which shrink the lining of the nose, but most doctors consider them of doubtful value.
Last year three new drugs—benadryl, pyribenzamine and anthallan— were put forward as hay fever remedies and aroused considerable enthusiasm among doctors and hay fever sufferers. Benadryl, particularly, has attracted a number of adherents. It is an antihistamine drug and works by insulating
the cells of the nose, mouth and throat so as to prevent the histamine from affecting them. When guinea pigs are given this drug prior to being sprayed with histamine they don’t die like the others, in fact, show no bad effects whatsoever. Mice, on the other hand, don’t appear to be protected by benadryl.
One advantage these drugs have over other treatments is that they are taken through the mouth in capsule or liquid form. However, since they sometimes have a toxic effect—drowsiness, nausea, dry mouth—they should be taken only on a doctor’s orders.
Hay fever, like most other allergy disorders, seems to be affected by the mental condition of the patient. If you are feeling well, have no financial worries, are getting along with your wife and your boss, chances are your hay fever attacks won’t be as severe as if you are worried or upset.
Every time a new drug shows up hayfeverites rush to give it a try. Since they have been reading the reports and advertising they are hopeful that the drug will do them some good. And for this reason, for a time, it does seem to bring relief. To check the value of new drugs, experimenters have tried substituting placebos—pills or capsules that look like the real thing but contain nothing but paste. If the patient keeps on improving while taking these it’s probably not the drug •so much as his mental state that is helping him.
Since about 80% of all hay fever is caused by ragweed pollen, perhaps the best cure is to treat that offender rather than the patients. And there science has presented us with a veritable atom bomb of a weed killer in 2,4-D. Laying down a fog of this chemical along roadsides and on vacant lots or grain fields before the ragweed pollen is ripe will kill all the weeds in the area, without injuring the nearby grass. Not only that, but since the common ragweed is an annual and depends entirely on seed for its next year’s growth, you are taking a big step toward eradicating the weed completely.
It’s Worse in the Wind
Many municipal governments are seeing to it that at least all roadside ragweed is sprayed every year. Everybody can help in this by cutting down or spraying the ragweed in his own yard before it gets a chance to produce pollen.
Apart from desensitizing treatments and drugs, your best hope is to try and flee the ragweed menace. Each year thousands of hayfeverites go to special resorts (usually in the north) where there isn’t a ragweed for hundreds of miles—but even that may not be far enough. A sea voyage would of course help for anybody who could afford one. But don’t go to the expense of moving from one street or city or province to another until you know what specific pollen is making you sneeze and that the new neighborhood is free from it.
Railway or motor trips are not recommended during the hay fever season. Roadsides and railway rightof-ways often harbor hay fever plants and the draught the moving vehicle sets up often draws air and pollen in through the windows — unless your coach or car is air-conditioned.
Wet days are better than dry days for hay fever sufferers. Rain literally washes pollen out of the air. Dry windy days are the worst in which to be abroad simply because plants shed more pollen during the sunlight and the wind carries it to your nose.
Electric fans are bad for hay fever. Chilling the surface of the skin seems to react on the mucous membrane of the nose and to increase the irritation. The fan, of course, also stirs up dust and pollen. Typhoon fans in ventilating systems in theatres and other public buildings are bad—though after a preliminary sneeze or two a properly air-conditioned theatre or restaurant is heaven to most sufferers.
That old villain “night air” that grandma used to be so frightened of is bad for hay fever sufferers. The reason: pollen tends to rise out of
reach on the warm ascending air currents during the day and to settle down again with the cool of the evening.
These practices were considered by Dr. Scheppergrell to be efficacious:
Swim in salt water. Take a cold shower after a warm one to stimulate the nervous system and make it less sensitive to changes of temperature and air currents. Irrigate the nostrils with a mild salt solution. Eat lots of vegetables and fruit and not much protein during the hay fever. There is some suspicion that vitamin C may be a help. Avoid alcoholic drinks, high seasoning and foods to which you are allergic.
There will be many a harried hay fever victim who will simply sneeze at the whole lot of these suggestions and say that they don’t work. However, others have found them a help and they all have at least one advantage in that they don’t cost much money. ★