The arrival of spring may be a happy occasion for birds, poets and baseball fans, but for millions of people with allergies, it is no cause for celebration.

Armed with a medically sound plan, however, many allergy sufferers can make it through the allergy season with a minimum of discomfort, according to allergy expert Mark Dykewicz, M.D., professor of internal medicine and chief of clinical immunology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

"There are a number of simple steps you can take to help relieve symptoms and minimize your suffering when allergy season kicks into high gear," Dykewicz says. "That's good news for many of the millions of Americans who traditionally suffer every year from seasonal allergies."

Most seasonal allergies are caused by immune system overreaction to airborne pollens — tiny particles released by trees, grasses and weeds in order to pollinate plants of their own species. Mold, pet hair and other substances can also exacerbate seasonal allergies.

In temperate climates, allergy season tends to begin in late winter/early spring and last until late summer/early fall. As time passes, different types of pollens arrive and cause allergic reactions.

Trees are first to pollinate, in late winter and spring. They tend to be followed by various grasses in late spring and summer. Weeds pollinate at different times of the growing season, though the dreaded ragweed — common in most areas east of the Rocky Mountains — does its pollinating in late summer and early fall.

Outdoor molds generally peak in late summer or fall, although mold counts are high all year in humid areas such as Florida.
  1. Take over-the-counter antihistamines. These drugs are very effective at reducing sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and scratchy throat. Some older-generation antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can cause sleepiness and can interfere with thinking and driving. As a result, Dykewicz recommends newer formulations that cause little or no drowsiness (e.g., Claritin or Zyrtec).
  2. Keep your doors and windows shut. When the weather turns nice in the spring and you are tempted to open the windows and let in fresh air, it may be better to turn on your air conditioner instead.
  3. Avoid the outdoors — especially to exercise — when pollen counts are high, or on windy days when pollen and molds are being blown about. Pollen counts are highest in the morning, from about 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
  4. When traveling by car, keep the windows up. This will keep out pollens, dust and mold.
  5. Take a shower and change clothes to rinse away pollen. Pollen can collect on clothes and in your hair,
  6. Dykewicz says. So when you have been outside for more than a few minutes shower and change as soon as you get home.
"When you've done all you can on your own and you [still] can't find relief, then it's time to see your doctor," Dykewicz says.

If that becomes necessary, there are several prescription medications that can help reduce or block seasonal allergy symptoms. These include other oral antihistamines; the drug Singulair; and nasal sprays.

For really difficult cases, Dykewicz says, many allergy sufferers benefit from allergy immunotherapy — a long-term series of shots to desensitize them to specific allergens.

"The good news is there's a lot you and your doctor can do to help relieve or prevent suffering caused by allergies," Dykewicz says.