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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]
Published Feb. 26, 2016

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.