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Sneezing? Runny nose? Dry eyes? Oh my!

Seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, affects more than 20 percent of the U.S. population. It's the cause for about 14.1 million doctor's visits at an overall cost of $6 billion each year. Here's how to cope.
/ Source: Forbes

People tend to dislike spring for one of three reasons:

They no longer get a booze-soaked break, they can't stand basketball or, maybe worst of all, they spend the whole season sneezing.

It's most likely the latter. That's because seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, affects more than 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. It's also the cause for about 14.1 million doctor's visits at an overall cost of $6 billion each year.

At the root of the problem are allergens, such as airborne pollens and mold spores. They trigger nasty symptoms, including sneezing, congestion, runny noses and itchiness. Pollen season generally stretches from February or March through October, but is usually even longer in the South due to the warmer weather.

Doctors don't know exactly what causes some people to battle terrible allergies while others get off scot-free.

They have, however, identified some risk factors, such as genetics.

In the DNA
If one's parents both have hay fever, he or she has a 55 percent to 60 percent likelihood of developing allergies, says Dr. Gailen Marshall, director of the division of clinical immunology and allergy at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss. If neither parents suffer, the likelihood of their child having allergies drops to 17 percent to 20 percent.

The environment in which you grew up also makes a difference. Exposure to pollen and pollution, such as diesel exhaust particles and ozone, promotes development of allergies too.

Some studies in recent years suggest that children who grow up with dogs and cats in their homes may be at a lower risk for developing allergies to pets, dust mites, ragweed and grass. But exposure to multiple such pets can have a different impact on kids' allergies than exposure to just one, and the subject is still being researched. Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, a professor of clinical medicine in the division of immunology and allergy at the University of Cincinnati, cautions people against getting pets specifically for this purpose.

An ounce of prevention
While a lot of research is being done on preventive treatments, doctors say you're much better off avoiding triggers and using medications to manage your symptoms. The earlier allergy sufferers start tackling the problem, the better.

"Don't wait until you get sick," Marshall says. "If your nose is beginning to itch, your eyes are getting teary and you're starting to get drainage, that's when you take medication — not when you can't breathe, you're waking up in the middle of the night and you're sneezing whenever you go outside. By that time it takes considerably more effort to get things under control."

If you don't treat your allergies you could end up with infections in your sinuses, throat or ears. People suffering from sinusitis miss an average of four days of work each year, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

The two most common types of allergy medications are antihistamines, which can stop all the major symptoms of hay fever but don't work well on established congestion, and decongestants. The latter comes in the form of oral medications and nasal sprays. The sprays are good for the short term but can cause dependency. If decongestants keep you up at night, or you can't take them due to heart or thyroid problems, try an anti-leukotriene, a medication that helps fight allergic inflammation. Prescription steroid nasal sprays are another effective option.

Of course, there are many of other remedies people swear by, such as taking vitamin C or eating a daily dose of locally made raw, unfiltered honey. The logic is that you're desensitizing your body to pollen, which raw honey contains. But there's no evidence to support these claims and honey could even cause a reaction, Marshall says.

For severe allergy sufferers who don't get relief from medications, allergy vaccination is a good bet. If you can handle regular injections of small doses of a specific allergen over three to five years, you can strengthen your resistance to it. More than 85 percent of patients have a good response, and the shots can help prevent the progression of allergies to asthma. Allergy patients are three times more likely to develop asthma than non-sufferers, Bernstein says.

Keep it simple
If the idea of that many needles is making you feel faint, take it easy. There are lots of little things you can do to lessen your exposure to pollen and molds, the experts say.

That may mean getting a test from an allergist to determine exactly what's setting you off or keeping an eye on pollen and mold counts via your local news or the Internet. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's Web site lists results from the National Allergy Bureau pollen and mold-counting stations across the country.

If you're sensitive and happen to be outside during high pollen counts, when you get home, take off your shoes, change your clothes and consider washing your hair, says Angel Waldron, spokeswoman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Hair is like a magnet for airborne pollen spores. If you don't have time to wash it, thoroughly brush it.

And while warm spring weather may tempt you to open your windows, hang your clothing to dry outside and put down the top of your convertible, allergy sufferers should reconsider. Or suffer the consequences, hopefully with a box of tissues nearby.

"If you know you're allergic to it," says Dr. Hugh Windom, clinical professor at the University of South Florida and spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, "avoid it."