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Boston ranked No. 3 in the list of worst cities for allergy sufferers.
updated 5/26/2006 6:11:55 PM ET 2006-05-26T22:11:55

Seasonal allergies wouldn’t be a problem if you could just avoid them. Unfortunately, not everyone can take a four-month hiatus and head to the desert each year.

Indoor and outdoor allergies to substances such as pollen, mold, pets and even (ick) cockroach dander plague about 50 million people in the U.S., according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) in Washington, D.C. If you happen to suffer from seasonal allergies — and live in a place where grass and trees grow — spring can be an itchy, congested and sneezy time of year.

This year, experts say allergies are at an all-time high due to the mild winter, and even people who don't normally suffer from allergies are experiencing symptoms. On top of making people feel lousy, allergies have a significant economic cost. For the first quarter of 2005, Americans spent nearly $1 billion on antihistamines, according to Fairfield, Conn.-based health care consulting company IMS Health.

But that doesn’t mean you have to seal yourself up with the air conditioner all season. Just as you check the weather each day (you don’t want to carry an umbrella all the time), check the local pollen count to know when you should avoid being outside or when to double up on your medicine.

Several Web sites track these numbers, including that of AAFA. They also put out an annual list of the Spring Allergy Capitals — a list of the 100 cities where pollen counts, the number of people using allergy medicine, and the number of board-certified allergists per capita are highest. Topping off the list for 2006 is Hartford, Conn., with balmy cities such as Greenville, S.C., and Orlando, Fla., also making the top 10.

"It’s good to know where your city ranks in terms of allergies," says Dr. Matthew Clarke, associate director of occupational medicine at North Shore University Hospital in Forest Hills, N.Y. "If your city has a high pollen count, then your symptoms are going to be more frequent and more dramatic."

After checking pollen counts, the next step is to visit an allergist. "It’s best to go to a doctor because they can determine whether you’re allergic to grass, weeds or trees," says Mike Tringale, director of communications at AAFA. "It’s a tailor-made diagnosis, made for you because the six things that you’re allergic to may not be what the next person is allergic to."

Once the diagnosis has been made, a doctor can suggest a prescription or an over-the-counter medicine. While older drugs may bring back memories of being sedated at your desk, doctors say newer medicines such as Schering-Plough's Claritin and Wyeth's Alavert can be taken on a regular basis without as many side affects, including drowsiness.

Dr. Philip Hemmers, an allergist at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., suggests that patients ask for steroid nose sprays such as GlaxoSmithKline's Flonase or Nasonex. "These are the best treatments for nasal congestion, and it doesn’t put you to sleep," he says. "People are concerned with the side affects of steroids, but very little, if any at all, actually gets in the blood stream."

Medications aren’t the only options. Allergists can also administer immunotherapy, a treatment that actually changes the way your immune system responds to allergens over a period of time. Similar to vaccinations, immunotherapy involves injecting the body with small amounts of an allergen, with gradually increasing doses. In time the patient develops an immunity to the allergen.

The treatments take a few years ago require a fair amount of dedication, but may be worth it. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, immunotherapy is successful in about 90 percent of patients with seasonal symptoms, and works in about 70 percent to 80 percent of patients with yearlong allergies.

Allergies can develop any time, even if you've never had them before. Doctors think a main cause is genetics. A person with one parent who has allergies has a 20 percent chance of getting them, too; if both parents suffer from allergies, the chances double.

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