This winter was one of the coldest on record, but spring allergy season is already beginning and it's time for sufferers to start preparing now. An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies, which are commonly called hay fever. Symptoms include itchy eyes, nose and throat; sneezing; stuffy or runny nose; tearing or dark circles under the eyes.
"Even with snow still on the ground, trees have started budding and are the first to produce pollen, creating major problems for people with allergies," said David Rosenstreich, M.D., chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Montefiore Medical Center. "The symptoms people experience often resemble a common cold, but, if it happens every year at this time, it's most likely to be allergies."
Allergy symptoms result from an overreaction by the body's immune system, which mistakes pollen for a foreign invader and attacks it - leading to the release of chemicals called histamines into the blood. As they travel through the bloodstream, the histamines latch onto receptors on a variety of cells, causing them to swell. That inflammation is what makes so many allergy sufferers miserable.
People with asthma are especially affected by allergies and may have asthma attacks, which can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Asthma often is triggered by allergies; though most people with allergies do not develop asthma.
Over-the-counter medications often reduce allergy symptoms, by blocking the histamine from causing cells to swell. But people who experience difficulty breathing or symptoms that become more severe should seek medical attention. A physician may be able to prescribe stronger medications if needed.
"By taking medicine early, you can prevent the symptoms before they begin," Dr. Rosenstreich said. "If you start after the symptoms are in full swing, it's much harder to stop the allergic reaction than to prevent it from the beginning."
In addition to medications, lifestyle changes can help relieve symptoms. Several to consider include:
•Limiting outdoor activities during days with high pollen counts.
•Keeping windows closed (at home or in the car) to keep pollen out.
•Installing your air conditioners early, since they're ideal for filtering the outside air that comes into your home.
•Washing your hair after coming indoors.
•Refraining from mowing lawns or raking leaves because this stirs up pollen and molds.
•Avoiding hanging sheets or clothes outside to dry.
There are generally three pollen seasons that vary in different parts of the country. Early spring is typically when trees pollinate, with birch, cedar, cottonwood and pine trees causing the biggest allergic triggers. Tree pollination in the Northeast has already begun, according to Dr. Rosenstreich, and lasts through early June, but can be almost year-round in warmer climates. Grass pollen allergies typically arise in late spring, and weeds cause hay fever from the summer through the fall. Ragweed is often one of the biggest offenders in most regions, as it can grow in nearly every environment.
"There's no reason for people with allergies to suffer," Dr. Rosenstreich said. "As long as you take the proper precautions, you should be able to enjoy the outdoors and make the most of the warm weather."