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Spring Allergies Strike Early This Year

Experts Say Tree Pollen Season May Be Long and Painful
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 17, 2012 -- Got a stuffy nose, sore throat, watery eyes, or throbbing head? In February, those symptoms are usually caused by a cold or the flu, but this year, the culprit could be allergies.

Thanks to a mild winter, spring allergy season got started nearly a month early in many parts of the U.S., and experts say that could mean prolonged misery for people who are sensitive to tree pollen.

“It’s very unusual because it’s so early,” says Stanley M. Fineman, MD, who is president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

His office, the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic, has been logging local pollen counts for nearly 20 years. “We have not seen pollen counts this high, this early, as long as I can remember,” he says.

It’s the same story across much of the country.

“We’re seeing it in the middle states like Maryland, southern Ohio, even some of the western states,” Fineman says.

Spring Allergies Strike Mid-Winter

In Northern California, allergist Gregory W. Bensch, MD, started seeing high tree pollen counts in mid-January.

“It’s definitely a month, month-and-a-half earlier than usual,” says Bensch, who practices at the Allergy, Immunology, and Asthma Medical Group in Stockton, Calif.

He says, normally, his patients who suffer from spring allergies would start getting mild symptoms in February, with the real suffering -- swollen, itchy, red eyes; sneezing; runny noses -- setting in around March.

“I’m seeing those really miserable patients already. So it’s definitely been a very early, atypical year for the allergy sufferers.”

And many people are coming into doctors’ offices confused by spring allergies that hit mid-winter, which is normally cold and flu season.

“They weren’t quite sure: ‘Is this allergies? Do I have a cold? What’s going on?’” says Frank Virant, MD, an allergist at the Northwest Allergy and Asthma Center, in Seattle. “It was clear from looking at the nasal secretions under a microscope that it’s allergies.”

Bernard S. Zeffren, MD, says it’s only the third time in his 16 years of practice in Orlando, Fla., that allergy season and cold and flu season have overlapped. “We’re probably going to have a spread-out kind of year,” he says.

Biologists say an early pollen season may also mean a long one, though that’s more difficult to predict since the length of the season will depend on precipitation.

After the trees start blooming, rainfall determines how long they keep shedding pollen.

“There are some years that our pollen has come and gone very quickly because it’s been warm and dry,” says Kim Coder, PhD, a professor of tree biology at the University of Georgia, in Athens.

“When you have rainy, intermittent weather, that can prolong the tree pollen season because it lengthens the time the flowers are open and producing pollen,” Coder tells WebMD.

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