THURSDAY, March 28 (HealthDay News) -- In much of the United States, there's little evidence of spring yet, unless you have seasonal allergies.
Folks with spring allergies are likely already experiencing sneezing, watery eyes and fatigue because of tree pollen, experts say.
The northern part of the country typically has high tree pollen levels in March, April and May, although this year's colder winter may have delayed the process in some areas, said Dr. Kevin McGrath, a spokesman for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Southern states start a bit earlier, and can have high tree pollen counts beginning in January, he said.
People with allergies, sometimes called hay fever, may notice more severe symptoms because of higher pollen counts, and allergy seasons may last longer, McGrath said.
"We've seen record pollen counts for trees and ragweed [the most common fall allergy trigger] for the past few years, and the seasons may be a bit longer -- about six to seven more days in the Midwest and a few more days in the Northeast," said McGrath. "These changes are definitely linked to higher levels of carbon dioxide."
Although he said these changes were likely because of climate change, there isn't definitive evidence to prove the link, he noted.
The delay in tree pollens this spring means that people with allergies may experience a "stacking" effect, said McGrath. Normally, different trees have peak pollen levels at different times. This year, there may be significant overlap, which may mean a tough few weeks for people with multiple tree allergies.
Dr. David Lang, section head of allergy and immunology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, said it can be difficult to know if your symptoms are due to a cold or an allergy. If you have a fever, it's a cold or flu and not allergies, Lang said. If your symptoms last longer than 10 days, it's allergies rather than a cold, he added. And if you feel worse outside, but better when you come inside, you're probably experiencing allergies.
If you have symptoms year-round, you probably have indoor allergies as well, he said. Common indoor allergens are dust mites and pets, he said.
Symptoms of seasonal allergies include sneezing and an itchy feeling, sometimes in the ears or on the roof of the mouth, Lang said. A big symptom that people often don't attribute to allergies is fatigue, McGrath added.
"Allergies interfere with restful REM sleep, so someone with allergies can sleep eight, nine or even 10 hours and wake up feeling tired, sore and achy. Allergies can really wear people down and decrease their quality of life," said McGrath.
Both experts agreed that many people can be helped by avoiding pollens that trigger their allergies, and from using over-the-counter antihistamines. They also recommended beginning medications before symptoms begin. This gives you a "priming effect," said McGrath, and helps keep your allergies from worsening throughout the season.
Of the three aspects of allergy management -- avoidance, medication and immunotherapy -- avoidance is probably the most important, said Lang. So, during pollen season, he recommends closing your windows and keeping your air conditioners running to filter the air. "If you keep your windows open, your indoor environment is just like the outdoors," noted Lang.
This advice holds true for your car too. Close car windows, and keep the convertible top up.
Also, exercise early or late in the day when pollen counts are lower.
"One thing people overlook is their hair," McGrath said. "The static from your hair attracts pollens and molds. At night, when you lay down, those pollens and molds are released onto your pillowcases. If you can, it's a good idea to wash your hair at night. Otherwise, run a damp cloth over your hair before you get into bed."
If avoidance or over-the-counter antihistamines don't help, doctors can prescribe nasal steroid sprays or nasal antihistamines, Lang said. McGrath advised not using over-the-counter decongestants as they can cause rebound stuffiness.
Both experts said that immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots, can help people with more severe allergies. But this treatment takes dedication. It requires at least weekly visits for six to12 months, followed by a monthly shot for as long as three to five years.
McGrath said that people shouldn't suffer through their allergies, as effective treatments are available.
Learn more about seasonal allergies from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: David Lang, M.D., section head, allergy and immunology, Cleveland Clinic, Ohio; Kevin McGrath, M.D., spokesman, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Arlington Heights, Ill.
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