Getting Itchy For most of us, the blooms couldn't get her soon enough. But sweet breezes bring wheezes and sneezes to the allergy-cursed; RITES OF SPRING


This week, five Today writers document signs of spring. Springtime means nothing less than freedom. Freedom from four walls. Freedom from heavy clothes. Freedom from board games, from baseboard heating, from frost on the windshield. For most everyone, the first day of spring is every bit as much Independence Day as the Fourth of July.

But not for Vivienne Stearns Elliott. Every year since she moved to Maryland, the end of March has merely signaled the approach of her punishment detail. While everyone else is happily reintroducing themselves to the natural world outside their windows, she resigns herself to weeks of infected sinuses and watery eyes, of sore throats and cracked lips, of sneezing fits and sleepless nights.

Elliott knows the real reason that other Eliot called April the cruellest month. Like Vivienne, T.S. must have had allergies.

Just beyond her Timonium doorstep, menace lurks everywhere this time of year. An oak tree across the street. A neighbor's newly mowed lawn. An azalea bush. Lilacs. To the immunologically balanced, these are spring's delightful bounty. To Elliott, one of 35 million Americans with hay fever, they are instruments of torture.

An hour or two in her garden and she's reduced to sniffles and itches. Passing from one building to the next at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, where she works in public relations, and she finds herself sneezing her way through a meeting. An ill-advised ride in a convertible (something she never risks on the East Coast), and she's forced to sleep sitting up all night because of coughing caused by postnasal drip.

Don't wax on about the joys of spring to Elliott. "I kind of dread spring," she says.

In fairness to Elliott, 45, she is neither a whiner nor a killjoy. She is, in fact, quite good-humored for someone so unfairly afflicted at the precise moment when everyone else is rediscovering their high spirits. "I'd love to be able to go out on the bike trail with my kids," she says. "I feel a sort of wistfulness. I wish I could be more of an outdoor person, but it's not going to happen."

Actually, she did try a bike ride with her kids. "I ended up with a sinus infection and laryngitis," she says. She even pays a price for a day of lounging poolside. "I come home and my eyes are watering and swollen." Growing up in Ohio, Elliott suffered from allergies, but nothing like what happened when she moved to Washington and then, seven years ago, to Baltimore. "The allergist told me that we have a lot of vegetation from north and south, so there are many more things you can be allergic to." She also learned that the humidity and elevation of Baltimore are ideal for dust mites, to which, she discovered, she was also allergic.

Her severe symptoms commenced with her first pregnancy when a sinus infection inflamed so floridly that her sinuses swelled shut, necessitating surgery. A nasal spray caused a puncture in her septum, which she and her husband Bruce discovered when her nose started whistling. "We both started laughing hysterically when that happened," she says.

Usually, Elliott fails to see the humor in her allergies. Though she takes medications -- antihistamines, steroids, sulfa drugs -- she hasn't been able to fully guard herself against drastic attacks from time to time.

Medication isn't her only line of defense. Avoidance is the first rule of the Elliott household. Carpeting is banished from the home as too inviting for dust mites. Pillows, sofa cushions and mattresses are covered. Windows must be kept closed year-round.

Husband Bruce, a local radio personality and sometime actor, bTC has learned to accommodate himself to his wife's condition. He does all the lawn-mowing and most of the gardening. But Vivienne's allergies aren't just labor intensive for Bruce. They put a crimp in his marital gift-giving as well. "I never buy her flowers or perfume or potpourri," he says. "Anything that smells nice is generally out. So the kids and I give her earrings on every occasion."

Given Vivienne's allergies, you'd have to conclude that the Elliotts are the most committed of Marylanders. In fact, on a West Coast trip to celebrate their 10th anniversary last year, Vivienne found herself virtually symptom-free in northern California. (Why, they were even able to tool around in a convertible!) But, of course, life is far too complicated for easy solutions. They happen to like Baltimore. "Bruce and I make a nice living here," she says. "We have friends and family here. I fantasize about retiring to the Napa Valley, but this is our home now."

Besides, in a few weeks, the pollen count will settle down, and Vivienne will enjoy a bit of relief.

Her furlough promises to be short-lived: In mid-August comes ragweed.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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