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Allergy Season Starts Early

Suddenly tormented by a runny nose, stuffy head, scratchy throat and itchy eyes? You've got lots of company.

Across the country, the spring allergy season has hit extremely early due to spells of unseasonably warm weather inducing trees such as elm, maple and oak to spew out pollen particles. That's making seasonal allergy sufferers miserable enough that doctors in most regions beside the upper Midwest are seeing a surge in patients seeking appointments or prescription refills.

"Normally, it wouldn't be until the end of March or the start of April," Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the Asthma and Allergy Research Center at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, said Friday.

He's also seen a recent increase in patients coming in with asthma flare-ups and problems from mold allergies, because balmy weather in the Northeast the past couple weeks has melted all the snow and ice, freeing mold spores from decaying leaves and twigs to blow around and add to the torment.

Denise Reis of Little Falls in northern New Jersey is one of those suffering from the double whammy. She saw her doctor last week for treatment of her mold allergies and now the pollen is bothering her so much she wears a mask over her face when she goes outside.

"Today was a bad day for me," said the 51-year-old retired actress. "I get wheezing, I get coughing spells, my eyes tear, I get headaches."

Reis isn't alone in her misery: One of every three or four U.S. residents suffers from allergies, the sixth-leading cause of chronic disease in the country.

In Memphis, tree pollen counts the past few days have been averaging about 300, up to four times the normal level for this time of year and well above the 80 to 100 range that triggers symptoms, said Dr. Phil Lieberman, an allergist at University of Tennessee College of Medicine.

"It's the highest pollen count that I can remember this early in the year," he said.

Dr. Mark Dykewicz, an allergist at St. Louis University School of Medicine, said tree pollen levels began rising about 10 days ago, along with patient calls. Like other doctors, he urges people with allergies to get medications immediately, because symptoms can be better controlled the sooner treatment starts.

Dr. Mary Ann Michelis, head of allergy and immunology treatment at Hackensack University Medical Center in northern New Jersey, has had some allergy patients come in this week mistakenly thinking they have a bad cold.

In Washington, D.C., Dr. Richard A. Nicklas of George Washington Medical Center said he's seen lots of patients with itchy, watery eyes, because pollen can settle in the eyes as well as being inhaled. He recommends eye-washing, even with tap water, for relief.

"I think what we're seeing is the tip of the iceberg," with many more patients suffering in the next few weeks, Nicklas said.

In Houston, daily highs are at seasonally normal mid-70s, but recent heavy rains have increased tree pollen production, said Dr. Gailen D. Marshall Jr., director of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at University of Texas Medical School. He said his patients, already miserable, are likely to get worse because of expected sunny weather over the weekend.

In Rochester, Minn., Dr. James Li, an allergy specialist at the Mayo Clinic, said his patients are fine: There's still snow covering the ground and trees don't normally start pollinating for at least six more weeks.

By Linda A. Johnson

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