Thought the worst of allergy season was behind you? Think again. For many allergy sufferers, the peak of season may be just ahead.
Things got off to a sneezy, stuffy start earlier than usual this year, when unseasonably warm temperatures in March revved up tree pollen about two weeks ahead of schedule in most areas of the country.
As tree pollen season comes to a close in early May, experts say grass pollen season, which usually begins in late April, is just getting started. The overlap could compound the misery of many allergy sufferers.
"For people allergic to pollen and grass, they will be double hit," said Dr. David Lang, head of the allergy and immunology section of the Respiratory Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.
The earlier-than-normal start to this allergy season may be made worse for some with allergies, who can become hypersensitive to allergens after being exposed early in the season. The phenomenon, called nasal priming, may explain why many people feel this season is so much worse than years past.
"Whereas earlier in the season it would take a high level of exposure to produce symptoms, after priming, symptoms are provoked by lower levels," Lang said. "More people are coming in to see us claiming a higher allergy response than in previous years. I would suspect that priming is to blame."
Although nearly all areas of the U.S. have been basking in a warmer spring this year, experts said the timing and severity of allergy season varied depending on geographic area. People living in the Northeast, Midwest, Northwest and Southeast may see the worst of the grass pollen.
"It really depends on where you are. I'm in Atlanta, and our tree pollen counts peaked a few weeks ago, whereas I would imagine northern areas are peaking now," said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology. "But I recently spoke to a colleague in Washington state, who said their season is just gearing up now."
Weather also plays a role. Warm and breezy spring days mean higher levels of pollen, while rain brings those levels down.
So what's an allergy sufferer to do? Experts say there are many ways allergy sufferers can take precautions and prevent many of their symptoms.
"To be allergy survivors, people need to be tuned in" by keeping track of weather reports and pollen counts, said Dr. Clifford Basset, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. "A little proactive pretreatment goes a long way."
Although the warm, breezy spring days are ideal open-window weather, experts said it might be time to crank up the air conditioning in buildings and in cars.
"With windows open and air conditioning off, the indoors is just an extension of the outdoors," Lang said. "Air conditioning will cut down on the indoor pollen count by 90 percent or more."
It also helps to change your clothes after being outdoors, brush off your shoes, rinse your eyeglasses and wash your hair before bed.
People who know exactly what their allergies are also have a better chance of heading off high pollen counts by avoiding the outdoors or taking anti-histamines to prevent symptoms when their allergies are likely to be triggered.
If avoidance and over-the-counter medications don't work, doctors can prescribe prescription allergy medication or an allergy shot.
"You should avoid as much as possible, but we don't expect people to hibernate," Lang said. "The goal is to control your symptoms."