The warmest winter in the past 10 years has few of us complaining, unless you happen to suffer from seasonal allergies, which have become a leading cause of missed work and poor productivity.

The warmest winter in the past 10 years has few of us complaining, unless you happen to suffer from seasonal allergies, which have become a leading cause of missed work and poor productivity.

Spring is the most common time of the year for people to experience seasonal allergy symptoms. As the weather gets warmer, plants start to bloom and trees and grasses come to life, triggering allergic symptoms in those with seasonal allergies. Because it has been so sunny and warm in the past few months, people have spent more time outside, increasing their exposure to such allergens.

Symptoms of seasonal allergies include sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, itching of the nose and post-nasal drip. Not all people experience all of the symptoms of “hay fever.” Some people will notice only one symptom. It can also be difficult to distinguish between seasonal allergies and the common cold, and only an allergist may be able to tell the difference.

Why do we get allergies? Scientists think both your genes and the environment have a lot to do with it. Normally, your immune system (your body’s defense system) fights germs. But an allergy is an exaggerated immune response to substances that aren’t generally harmful. Essentially your body is responding to a false alarm. The usual suspect? Pollen.

Pollens are tiny, egg-shaped powdery grains released from flowering plants, which are carried by wind or insects and serve to cross-pollinate other plants of the same type for reproductive purposes. Pollen landing in a person’s eyes, nose, lungs and skin can set off an allergic reaction

Pollens spread by the wind are the main cause of seasonal allergies, while pollens  that rely on insects for distribution to other plants do not. Insect-pollinated plants with brightly colored flowers are not generally the cause of seasonal allergies since their pollen does not usually make its way into the air.

Some experts warn that warmer winters may be the wave of the future. Earlier springs could potentially cause more pollen exposure for many people. Three recent studies showed that pollen seasons are occurring earlier in the year, lasting longer and resulting in more airborne pollen. Worsening of pollen allergies may be another effect of global warming that has yet to be fully recognized.

This year caught many people, including allergists, by surprise, with likely very few patients having started medications early enough to be effective. But, even if you’ve missed the longer-term preventive benefits, beginning now can make you feel better.

Hay fever sufferers would be wise to start taking peak-season precautions now, changing clothes and showering after outdoor activities, keeping the windows closed, running your car’s air conditioner on recirculate and avoiding early morning outdoor activity, when pollen counts are highest.

Be aware that some medications like nasal sprays can take several days to reach their full effect. Don’t assume they’re not working if you don’t get relief right away. Make sure you stick with it for at least a week. And once your symptoms are under control, keep taking it, or your symptoms will surely return. If your symptoms get worse or your over-the-counter nasal sprays are not working, ask your doctor about a prescription for a nasal cortisone spray.

Try an antihistamine at night. Older over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl are stronger than newer drugs, but with the side effects of drowsiness. This makes them well-suited for nighttime use.

Are your eyes bothering you? Use a prescription antihistamine eye drop as soon as you feel mild itching. Avoid over-the-counter decongestant eye drops as they can cause rebound redness when you stop using them.

You can find out if you have seasonal allergies and the types of pollen that aggravate you. This is accomplished through allergy testing, which typically involves skin testing, or a blood test called a radioallergosorbent test. Allergy testing can help in predicting the times of the year that you are likely to experience allergy symptoms, and is a must if you are interested in allergy shots.