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For allergy sufferers, it's the opening act

Trees aren't the only thing blooming right now in New England. There's a bumper crop of robust sneezes, crimson eyes, and drippy noses, too.

'You're so happy to see spring, but then you go, 'Oh, God, the pollen's out,' " said Janet Willis, an inveterate allergy sufferer from Hancock, N.H.

By late last week, tree pollen levels were soaring. And guess what? This is only the opening act.

'The warm-up period is the early trees, right now," said Dr. Wilfred Beaucher, Willis's allergy specialist. 'And then in May it goes into its big push. That's the fireworks of pollen production, when your car windshield gets covered with pollen and you have to put the windshield wipers on to get rid of it."

The culprits of the moment are maples and willows, cottonwoods and junipers. And while they spawn plenty of misery, they're nothing compared with oak and birch, which will get going in a few weeks.

'The worst is yet to come," said Dr. Javed Sheikh, clinical director of allergy care at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Just how bad, no one can say. To a great extent, that will depend on the interplay between dry weather and wet.

Regular spring showers help cleanse the air of pollen. But if it turns out to be a windy, dry spring, then pollen will be free to dance with abandon.

Pollen is among the primary agents responsible for allergic reactions, which happen when allergens enter via the nose, lungs, and eyes. In sensitive people, the body's immune system responds to inhaled pollen with a chain reaction that results in a runny nose, wheezing, and, in bad cases, sinusitis and asthma attacks.

'And once this inflammation starts," Beaucher said, 'each day you're exposed to pollen, you're primed like a pump to be more and more bothered."

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology estimates that 40 million to 50 million Americans suffer from allergies.

An expanding arsenal of medications aims to still their sneezes and coughs, and now patients can derive a smidgen of comfort from this: More allergy medicines are available over the counter or in generic versions, meaning that the cost of relief is somewhat lower.

Before resorting to drugs for their patients, doctors attempt to manage the condition by reducing the triggers of symptoms.

'Basically, the way you treat allergies is to avoid what you're allergic to, which is easier said than done," said Dr. James MacLean, an allergy specialist in Salem. 'With pollen, you can't avoid it like an animal or dust mites that cause allergic reactions."

Still, there are measures that can be used to reduce human-pollen interaction.

For example, children who come inside after a day of play should quickly shed their clothes and hop in the shower.

'Kids like to put their hands in their eyes, so you want to remove any pollen," MacLean said. Their clothes should be washed, too.

Specialists also suggest closing windows to block the pollen.

'The only environmental advice, which most people don't follow on spring days like this, is stay indoors as much as you can," Sheikh said, 'and that's the opposite of what you want to do on a nice day."

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.


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