Photos: Micropollen: The beauty behind your allergy misery

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  1. Willow pollen

    This stunning up-close view of willow pollen was captured by Swiss photographer Martin Oeggerli using modern scanning-electron microscope (SEM) technology and colorization techniques.

    Despite its allure under the microsope, willow tree pollen is a common early-spring allergen, triggering sniffles, itchy eyes and misery in many parts of the world.

    Here, a grain of willow pollen has wedged between flower petals.

    Click for more beautiful reasons to sneeze. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Alder pollen

    Alder pollen is a common windborne allergen in wooded areas of North America. The pollen can be found miles away from their source.

    In some cases, people who are allergic to alder pollen can develop oral allergy symptoms when they eat certain fruits and vegetables. You may have this if you've noticed symptoms such as itchiness, swelling or redness after you've eaten a peach, apple, plum, celery or carrots.

    (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Silver leaf oak pollen

    Pollen from a silverleaf tree has a sticky coating that bonds them to animal passersby. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pine pollen

    Ever find your car coated with yellow particles during the spring? That's pine pollen, seen here -- a common allergen. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Forget-me-not pollen

    Grains of forget-me-not pollen are among the tiniest known, each are just five one-thousands of a millimeter in diameter.

    Forget-me-nots are considered a fairly allergy-free flower. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. White clover pollen

    No, that's not a French roll. It's the protein-rich pollen from white clover. These grains are an important food for bees, but they are a mild allergen all year long for many people. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Silk tree pollen

    Pollen from an Albizia, also known as the silk tree, have triggered some allergies in the southern United States, but it's not considered a major culprit. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Acanthus pollen

    Acanthus pollen is not a major allergy trigger, so the ornamental plant is often recommended for the gardens of allergy sufferers. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Geranium pollen

    Dozens of grains of pollen have reached their destination: a geranium flower's stigma. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Snowball plant pollen

    The gray granules are pollen from the snowball plant. One of them has begun growing a reproductive tube. The yellow grains are pollen from another species of plant that have missed their mark.

    Viburnum tinus, known as the snowball plant, is a good planting choice for many as it causes few allergy problems. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Quince pollen

    Pollen from a Chaenomeles, or flowering quince, lands on a target bloom. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pistia pollen

    Pollen from Pistia, also know as water cabbage or water lettuce. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Venus flytrap pollen

    The pink-flecked pollen granules from a Venus flytrap. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Behind the images

    Unlike pictures captured with a camera, SEM scans are based on particle emission rather than light -- they don’t show colors and patterns.

    By adding layers of color and shadows, Swiss photographer Martin Oeggerli, whose work has appeared in National Geographic, literally "paints the light" in these images.

    “Certainly, most of my works are inspired by science. But to be finally enjoyed as 3D-realistic artworks of the invisible, the originally black and white electron microscopy scans have to be painted with color,” he says.

    In this illustration of the process, the original SEM image of a wasp eye is shown at bottom right. Oeggerli's colorful processing is shown at top left.

    Read more about these images from the photographer. (Martin Oeggerli / Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 4/29/2010 8:52:22 AM ET 2010-04-29T12:52:22

This year's late spring is bringing a burst of warm days and beautiful flowers. Unfortunately, it's also made millions of allergy sufferers miserable. And, scientists say, the awful season could be a sign of worse suffering to come.

Unprecedented levels of pollen have been measured across the Eastern United States this April. On April 7, the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Georgia saw a near-record-breaking concentration of 5,733 particles per cubic foot. And in mid-April, Kansas City, Mo., recorded a pollen level of over 8,000 particles per cubic foot, the highest ever seen at that station.

To put that in perspective, 15 particles per cubic foot can cause sniffling and sneezing in those with bad allergies, said Jay Portnoy, the chief of allergy, asthma and immunology at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo. At 100 particles per cubic foot, everyone with allergies gets sick. April's record levels went even further.

"The sheer number of particles in the air was enough to trigger symptoms even in patients who didn't have allergies, just because of the irritant effect," Portnoy said.

The culprit for this year's bumper crop of pollen is the weather, according to Portnoy. Temperatures stayed cool throughout February and March, preventing flowering trees from beginning their annual pollination ritual. Instead of a gradual, species-by-species release of pollen, the trees stored up until the weather got balmy. Then they all released at once.

For the 40 million Americans who have indoor/outdoor allergies, the pollen explosiontranslated into runny noses, scratchy throats and itchy eyes. Many of Portnoy's patients complained that their usual medications weren't working, but that wasn't quite true, Portnoy said.

"The exposure to the pollen was so great that it overwhelmed the medicine," he said.

A rising trend
The tree pollen burst has settled down somewhat, and allergists aren't yet sure how severe the grass pollen season, which starts in a few weeks, will be. Nonetheless, people with allergies might want to stock up on tissues.

Research suggests that the overall trend for pollen is up, and global warming could be to blame.

Both warmer temperatures and carbon dioxide trigger plants to grow faster and larger — and to produce more pollen. A 1995 study in the journal Grana found that birch pollen in Europe gradually increased over the previous 30 years. And a 2003 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that ragweed growing near carbon-dioxide rich cities grew faster and denser than ragweed growing in the countryside. The urban ragweed also produced more pollen, said lead researcher Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Global warming lengthens the growing season, Ziska said, pointing to evidence that trees in carbon-dioxide rich cities flower earlier than those in the countryside. That could be good news for some farmers, but bad news for allergy sufferers.

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"The combination of both increasing CO2 and, of course, warmer temperatures is likely to exacerbate both weed growth and pollen production from those weeds," Ziska said.

Halting hay fever
Allergies develop when pollen or another allergen triggersthe immune system to produce an antibody called IgE. The tiny, y-shaped IgE antibodies then attach to large mast cells in the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, lungs and digestive system. When these primed mast cells encounter more pollen, they burst, spewing forth granules full of histamines and other chemicals. The result is the sneezing, sniffling mess of hay fever.

What scientists don't know is why something as ubiquitous as pollen makes so many of us sick. Allergies could be a byproduct of the way our immune system evolved: annoying, but not so detrimental that natural selection deletes the genes responsible. Another theory, dubbed the "hygiene hypothesis," notes that people in areas rampant with parasite infections have low allergy rates. IgE antibodies help defend the body against parasitic worms, the theory goes, so perhaps by curing ourselves of parasites, we've freed IgE to run amok, overreacting to every grain of pollen. 

The hygiene hypothesis is far from proven, but that hasn't stopped some online entrepreneurs from selling parasitic worms to allergy patients desperate for a cure. Fortunately for the squeamish, there are other, more reliable options.

Allergists have an arsenal of antihistamine sprays, pills and eye drops, and corticosteroids can soothe swollen airways. In some cases, allergen immunotherapy — better known as allergy shots — can help people control their allergies. In fact, scientists have a slew of tips for allergy sufferers.

The important thing, said Rebecca Piltch, M.D., an allergist in San Rafael, Calif., is that patients figure out which types of pollen set off their allergies. That way, they can prepare for the season by developing a treatment plan in advance.

"For most people with allergies, it is possible to achieve good control over symptoms, and it is possible to have a good quality of life, including outdoor activities," Piltch said. "So many people suffer for years or sometimes even decades, and that isn't necessary most of the time."

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