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Ah-choo! Spring has sprung, and the air is brimming with tree and grass pollen. While pollen has been rearing its itchy head since late February, it becomes more prevalent in March and peaks throughout the last two weeks of April and first two weeks of May.

"An allergy occurs when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance – such as pollen, bee venom, or pet dander – or to a food that doesn’t cause a reaction in most people," says Patrick Perin, MD, chief of allergy and immunology at Holy Name.

There are also non-specific factors that contribute to allergies, such as repeated viral infections and the environment in which a person lives. For example, children raised on farms, where they are exposed to an extensive number of trees, grass and animal fur tend to have less incidences of asthma or allergies. Children in cities, who are exposed to more air pollution and other environmental hazards, suffer more with allergies and incidents of asthma.

Seasonal allergies usually occur at the same time every year and mostly cause symptoms within the eyes and nose.

The most common allergy symptoms are:

  • itchy, watery eyes and/or nose
  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • rash
  • hives (a rash with raised red patches)
  • stomach cramps
  • vomiting

An allergy differs from a cold in that a cold typically has more systemic symptoms, such as fever, body aches, and fatigue.

Dr. Perin provides tips to prevent allergies from putting a sting in your spring.

  • Keep your windows closed – even though the temptation is to leave them wide open for fresh air.
  • Change clothes when you come home, and wash your hair before bed so your pillow doesn’t get full of pollen.
  • Brush your dog just before he or she comes into the house from outside as dogs can carry pollen on their coats.
  • Keep a supply of over-the-counter antihistamines and nasal steroid sprays in your home. These sprays take up to one week to work and will only be effective if used daily throughout the allergy season.

If antihistamines and nasal sprays don’t work, immunotherapy (called "exposure therapy") is the only potential long-term cure as this treatment can re-program your immune system to stop triggering allergy symptoms. Immunotherapy is given as injections, initially weekly, until a maintenance dose is reached, and then monthly. Patients usually feel some relief after two months.

If allergies are left untreated, they can cause asthma, a serious, potentially life-threatening lung disease. Asthma must be treated appropriately with prescription medications. If not treated quickly, asthma may require a visit to the emergency room and/or hospitalization.

By keeping some common over-the-counter medications in your home and adhering to preventive strategies, you should be able to stop and smell the roses without sneezing or wheezing.