Attention, allergies sufferers: Pollen has arrived

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(CNN) — While some of you are probably out playing sports and smelling flowers, the rest of us are indoors with clogged noses, struggling to keep our burning eyes open.

The nice weather means spring allergies have kicked in for millions of Americans, and in the Southeast, the pollen assault is brutal. On Monday, Atlanta broke a 13-year pollen count record, with a 8,164 particles of pollen per cubic meter of air observed by the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic.

The previous record was 6,013 particles, detected on April 12, 1999.

The website Pollen.com, which tracks pollen nationwide, shows high pollen counts from Virginia to Florida, extending westward to Arkansas and parts of Texas. There are also pockets of high pollen activity in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nevada, California and Arizona.

More than 60 million Americans suffer from allergic rhinitus, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. That means when they inhale something they are allergic to, they suffer symptoms in the nose and eyes. When the trigger of the reaction is pollen, the person is said to have “hay fever.”

Besides itchy eyes, runny nose and clogged sinuses, doctors say allergies can even affect your mood. The connection isn’t entirely understood – it could be that nasal congestion and medication-induced drowsiness lead people to feel down, but one study suggests that the allergic reaction itself may lower mood.

Allergy season has started earlier this year, experts say. Since there’s been a mild winter, plants and trees are releasing pollen much sooner than normal, says CNN meteorologist Sean Morris. Daffodils and tulips are out ahead of schedule, and oak, mulberry, sycamore, sweet gum and birch trees are all blooming.

But if you’re wondering what’s covering your car, it’s pine pollen, which usually doesn’t come out until mid-to-late April.

“Amazingly enough, most people are not allergic to the stuff you can see,” Morris said.

The microscopic particles, smaller than a human hair’s width, cause the most misery, says Dr. Stanley Fineman, allergy at the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic and president of the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology.

“We’re seeing it in the patients who are having much more trouble this year than they’ve had in the past, because of the very high [pollen] counts and the prolonged season,” Fineman says.

And while the season began earlier than normal, that doesn’t mean it will end sooner, Fineman said.

Patients are also suffering in Knoxville, Tennessee, which was rated the worst city for allergies in the United States by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in 2010 and 2011.

Even short periods of exposure to pollen hurt allergy patients, says Dr. Bob Overholt, a Knoxville-based allergist at the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center. Each time you go outside, you’re priming your immune system to have an even worse reaction later.

There aren’t any new treatments approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for allergies this year. You’ve got three options for over-the-counter oral antihistamines: Allegra (Fexofenadine), Claritin (Loratadine) and Zyrtec (Cetirizine) – but many patients need a prescription nasal spray in addition to one of those in order to find relief.

Allergists can prescribe topical nasal antihistamines and steroidal sprays. Antihistamine eye drops are also available over-the-counter and by prescription.

And the only long term option for allergy sufferers is to undergo immune therapy, in the form of shots, over a period of three to five years. An allergy test determines what you are allergic to, and then you get tiny doses of that allergen injected so that you become desensitized. A method of accomplishing this using droplets under the tongue has shown promise in studies, but is not FDA-approved.

Bottom line: If you’re suffering this spring, allergists can help.

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