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Tampa Bay feeling the symptoms of an intense allergy season

Seasonal allergy season is in full swing in the Tampa Bay area. Common allergens include pollen from oak and juniper trees. [iStockphoto]

Seasonal allergy season is in full swing in the Tampa Bay area. Common allergens include pollen from oak and juniper trees. [iStockphoto]

Sneezing? Coughing? Feeling a slight tickle in your throat?

There's a reason: Tree pollen is upon us.

The Tampa Bay region is in the midst of a "very severe" allergy season, said Dr. Richard Lockey, an allergist and distinguished health professor at the University of South Florida.

"People are having all sorts of problems," he said, naming hay fever, watery eyes and wheezing as among the symptoms.

Experts cast much of the blame on oak trees, which have been pollinating since late December. As a result, the air is now thick with irritants that can leave even non-allergy suffers feeling uncomfortable.

"We live in a virtual oak forest," Lockey said. "We have 11 different species of oak, and they bloom one right after another."

Oak trees aren't the only flora releasing pollen into the air. Cedar and cypress trees are also in bloom, Lockey said. And if you live near the beaches, add Australian pine trees to the list of possible offenders.

Making matters worse: It's still cold and flu season.

"It's a double whammy for a lot of people," said Dr. Mona Mangat, of Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in St. Petersburg. "Because of the poor air quality, it's taking forever for people to get better when they get a cold."

Nasal allergies affect an estimated one in six Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

This year's sufferers include Paul Smith, 47, a cook who lives in St. Petersburg. Smith has had headaches and a runny nose for the last couple of weeks, he said. He's been coughing more than usual, too.

For Smith, allergies are an annual annoyance.

"There's not really too much I can do," he said. "I inherited it from my mother."

Barbara Bishop, 45, has also noticed her on-again off-again allergies flaring up, she said.

Her telltale symptom: red, watery eyes.

"I turned on the Weather Channel to see what had happened with the tornados (in the Florida Panhandle), and saw the pollen was high," Bishop said. "Then it all made sense."

While the start of this year's allergy season was right on schedule, some physicians say the sneezing has, in recent years, been starting earlier than it used to. They point to the recent spate of warm winters, which have caused the trees and grasses to pollinate earlier.

First, the bad news: Experts say the air quality is probably going to get worse over the next several weeks.

"Our season usually lasts through March," Mangat said.

Now, the good news: If you're sneezing or experiencing watery eyes or headaches, you have options.

Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Claritin, Zyrtec and their generic equivalents can provide relief from allergy symptoms, Mangat said. Over-the-counter nasal sprays such as Flonase are also fine to try, she added.

A doctor can prescribe stronger medications.

There are other ways to get relief. Stay inside. Shut the windows in your home and car. Use the air conditioning instead.

If all else fails?

"It's a good time to go to Nevada," Lockey said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

Here is some basic information on seasonal health concerns from Dr. Mona V. Mangat, a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in St. Petersburg.

Fighting colds

The common cold is caused by a family of viruses. Our immune system's attempts to fight the infection lead to many of the symptoms we see, from fever and runny nose to a cough or sore throat. Treatment of the common cold primarily consists of supportive care: fluids and rest, as well as over-the-counter medications for fever, pain or cough. When symptoms linger, or worsen rather than improve, it's wise to seek medical attention to rule out a bacterial secondary infection like sinusitis or bronchitis.

Flu symptoms and what to do

Flu season is from October through May but cases typically peak from December through March. The flu is caused by the influenza virus. In healthy adults and children, influenza is a moderately severe illness, but in the sick, elderly or very young it can be life-threatening. Symptoms of the flu include high fever, muscle aches, dry cough, chills, sore throat and upper respiratory symptoms such as runny nose and congestion. The flu can be diagnosed by a rapid laboratory test within the first two or three days of the illness. Antiviral medications are available by prescription but must be started within a day or two of symptom onset to help decrease the length and severity of the illness. The best way to avoid this illness is to be immunized annually at the start of flu season.

How allergies differ from colds

Allergies are caused by an overactive immune response to things that are harmless (pollens, animal dander, dust mites). The symptoms can seem very similar to those of the common cold, but there are a few important distinctions. Allergies do not cause body aches or fever, and the nasal discharge associated with allergies usually is clear. A common cold will usually resolve within 14 days, whereas allergy symptoms seem to be persistent and recurrent, often following a seasonal pattern.

All about hay fever

Allergic rhinitis, the medical term for hay fever, affects 20 percent of the population. It can begin at any age, but the majority of patients have their onset of symptoms before age 10. Symptoms can be seasonal (related to pollen), perennial (related to allergens you are exposed to daily, like animal dander or dust mites) or a combination of the two. In Florida, some tree, grass or weed is pollinating throughout much of the year. During the winter months we tend to see moderate pollen activity, primarily from weeds, but from early January into late March we see high levels of tree pollen.

What to take

It is reasonable to try some of the over-the-counter meds specifically for allergies, like antihistamines (Claritin, Allegra, Zyrtec) and/or nasal steroids (Nasacort, Flonase). When over-the-counter remedies don't help, an allergist can help identify whether you do indeed have allergies and, if so, how best to treat them.

Find Dr. Mona V. Mangat at bayallergy.com. Contact her at bayallergy@gmail.com.

Tampa Bay feeling the symptoms of an intense allergy season 02/23/16 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2016 6:00pm]
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