SIKESTON -- Sunday may mark the first day of spring, but for some allergy sufferers the "sneezin' season" has already sprung.
Local allergist Dr. Michael Critchlow admitted many people are already experiencing hay fever symptoms.
"Some of our early allergies in the spring may come in February, so some people may be experiencing some pollen exposure from trees, causing congestion of the nose and itching eyes and throats," Critchlow said.
However, April and May are typically worse than any other months when it comes to allergies, noted Critchlow. And usually the tree season starts before the grass season so what some residents may also be suffering now are cedar and maple allergies, Critchlow said.
According to H. James Wedner, M.D., chief of allergy and immunology at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, many trees bloom early in the Midwest.
Many think that their runny nose is simply a cold. However, if the symptoms of itchy eyes, sneezing and runny noses continue, Wedner said it's probably seasonal allergies.
"There is no such thing as a cold that lasts all month," Wedner said. "People will come in and say, 'Well, I thought I just had a cold', 'Well, how long did it last?' 'Well, from the first of March to the first day of June.' That's not a cold, that's an allergy, and no one should walk around with a pocket full of Kleenex constantly. We can fix those sorts of things and that's why allergists are available."
But it's not difficult to confuse an allergy with a cold, and there are symptoms that distinguish the two, Critchlow said.
"One is that sneezing is more prominent in allergies," Critchlow said. "People who have a bad, painful sore throat -- that would be a cold. Fever is a tip off to a cold, too. So hay fever is misleading because people with hay fever don't really have a fever. Also itching of the eyes is more prevalent in allergies."
The first thing most people with allergies will do is take an antihistamine such as Loratadine, which is the generic name for over-the-counter medicines like Claritin, but a real problem is antihistamines don't treat congestion so they need to take a decongestant, such as Sudafed, to treat it, Critchlow said.
Wedner recommended taking medications a couple weeks before allergy season begins. In addition he tells allergy sufferers to stay indoors as much as possible to avoid mold and pollen in the air and if it's warm outside to turn on the air conditioner, but turn the switch from auto to fan, he said.
"That means the fan will continually put air through the filter," Wedner said. "The filter on most units is efficient because pollen is pretty big and will filter out a lot of the pollen, but what costs a lot on the AC unit is cooling."
He continued: "So if you set the temperature at 75 and it's 55 to 65 degrees outside, that cooling part will never turn on. The cost of running the fan is probably no more than the cost of a couple of 60-watt light bulbs, and you've protected yourself by closing the windows and turning on the fan," Wedner said.
Allergy season will soon kick into high gear, and Wedner pointed out incidents of allergies are rising at almost 7 percent a year in the United States.
Critchlow agreed, saying people today want to know more about allergies.
"As allergists, we offer specific therapy for those who qualify, and the truth of the matter is not only are people more interested, there are more people with allergies than there used to be," Critchlow said.
Although there are several hypotheses of why this is, one of the most popular is the hygiene hypothesis, Critchlow said.
"It states that now we grow up in a more hygienic and antiseptic environment than when most people grew up on a farm. And now we're not exposed to farm animals as much and we're not running around with bare feet," Critchlow said.
Critchlow went on to say those who support the hygiene hypothesis feel with early childhood exposure to bacteria, it causes a drift in the immune system. This will result in less tendency to develop allergies, whereas if a person is not exposed to other bacteria and pathogens in their childhood, subsequently they are to develop more allergies, he explained.
Regardless, allergies shouldn't be ignored, Critchlow said.
"There are complications with some of them, especially sinusitis and some are related to asthma," Critchlow noted. "Hay fever allergies may precede asthma and children may get otitis media (ear infection), which appears to be an allergy but is just not typical."
If symptoms of allergies or asthma persist for a lengthy period of time, people are advised to call their doctor.