Spring Allergy Season in Full Bloom

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Spring allergy season (search) is hitting with a vengeance in many parts of the country, with the relatively warm, wet winter in many regions resulting in loads of tree and other pollens and mold.

Sniffling, congested and otherwise miserable allergy patients are packing into doctors' offices and overwhelming their switchboards as they seek an appointment — and relief from the seasonal agony.

"I'm booked solid," said Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the Asthma and Allergy Research Center at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

Bielory has extended the hours in his satellite office in nearby Springfield by 25 percent to cope with the surge of "snifflers" that started several weeks ago, followed by patients with eye irritation and other symptoms this past week.

"It's going to be a very strong and brisk season in the next three to four weeks," Bielory predicted.

Dr. Maria Lania-Howarth, head of allergy and immunology at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, expects a strong early peak for the allergy season.

Despite plenty of snow and cold weather in the Northeast in late February and early March, early bloomers such as birch and elm trees are budding and putting out lots of pollen, she said.

March's typically windy weather can blow pollen and mold around for miles, bothering anyone sensitive to them, so Lania-Howarth tells patients to start taking their medicines two to four weeks before when they normally begin to have allergy symptoms.

In some parts of the country, the misery began earlier than usual — before allergy patients could start taking medications to prevent symptoms from getting out of control.

In northern Florida, where allergy season normally starts in late February, it's moved earlier steadily over the past several years and started in late January this year, said Dr. Ronald Saff of Allergy & Asthma Diagnostic Treatment Center in Tallahassee. Meanwhile, he's been seeing an increase in asthma attacks among his allergy patients.

"A lot of people have been running to the pharmacy and taking over-the-counter medicines without relief. The spring allergens are so potent that many people (require) two or more drugs," Saff said. "It's similar to being struck by microscopic cannonballs" when pollen hits lining of the nose and sinuses.

In Dallas, Dr. John Meiser of Pediatric Allergy/Immunology Associates said the spring allergy season, typically dominated by tree pollen, came a couple weeks early, possibly because of the warm, wet winter in his area. He had patients showing up with symptoms — nasal congestion, runny nose, postnasal drip, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes — by the end of February, instead of the usual mid-March.

In northern California, where flooding has followed rainfall about 50 percent above normal this winter, pollen from cedar and juniper trees has allergy patients on a bit of a roller coaster, said Dr. Alan Goldsobel of Allergy & Asthma Associates in San Jose. That's because the continuing rains, while feeding trees and plants, temporarily wash pollen out of the air.

"Patients will get really bad, have extreme exacerbations of their symptoms, and then it starts to rain and they're better again," Goldsobel said, adding he expects an intense allergy season, with problems worsening in April and May.

Even in some normally arid areas, such as Nevada and New Mexico, tree and weed pollens have been at high or moderate levels for days.

On the other hand, in the Upper Midwest some allergen-tracking stations are still reporting no signs of pollen or mold, and others haven't even started monitoring for the season.

Saff and other allergy specialists say patients with severe allergies should consider prescription nasal steroid sprays, such as Nasonex and Flonase, or immunotherapy shots that gradually decrease sensitivity to allergens such as pollen.

Meiser noted some doctors are beginning to try what's been dubbed"rush immunotherapy," (search) where the doses of weekly allergy shots are stepped up quicker to bring relief months earlier than usual.