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Achoo! Your nose knows

It's right in there with fresh strawberries and spring training. For Dr. Roger Danziger, it is perhaps the surest sign of spring.

"The tree sufferers come marching in," said Danziger, a St. Petersburg allergist.

They sneeze, wheeze, blow their noses and fight headaches.

For these unfortunate souls, and an estimated 20 percent of other Americans, this is peak hay fever season.

"It drives me nuts," said Tarpon Springs police Lt. Ron Holt, who says it's all he can do to drag himself out of bed and get to work. "It's just bad."

The culprit is tree pollens. On Feb. 2, the experts who measure these pollens recorded 141 per cubic meter of air, a little shy of 200, considered high. Last Wednesday, the reading was 2,139.

"The tree pollens are here, definitely here," said Enrique Fernandez-Caldas of the division of allergy and immunology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. The pollens are counted after being collected on the roof of the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa.

The Tampa Bay area currently is near the peak of tree pollination, the process of fertilization for a tree, Fernandez-Caldas said.

Oak and cypress are the main culprits, but hazelnuts, pines and mulberries are adding to the problem, he said, speculating that trees may be pollinating sooner this year because of an early onset of warmer temperatures.

"They feel like winter is over and they're in full strength," he said.

The high pollen counts can trigger allergic reactions even in people who otherwise might not show any symptoms, Danziger said.

So don't be surprised if your head feels a tad stuffy today.

"Right now, it seems to be like a really bad time for people," said pharmacist Rich Glasgow of Michels Pharmacy in Belleair Bluffs.

Allergists suggest that sufferers stay indoors with the windows closed or air conditioning turned on to filter the air. Over-the-counter or prescription medicine also helps, they say.

Fortunately, the tree pollen season usually lasts from about January to March, so relief shouldn't be far way.

But the respite won't be for long.

The grass allergy season kicks in soon.