Over-the-counter allergy treatments are big sellers this week.

"The nonsedating antihistamines, such as Claritin, you see it being utilized more than it is usually," said pharmacist Mark Oley at Westbury Pharmacy. "Nasal steroids fit that protocol as well." Oley says pharmacies generally expect an upswing in pollen season. What is pollen?

Plants produce tiny round or oval pollen grains to reproduce. Pollen released into the air carries a plant's male genes to a female plant. In some species, the plant uses the pollen from its own flowers to fertilize itself.

What are pollen allergies?

Pollen allergies, also called hay fever, are among the most common allergies. About 35 million Americans suffer from hay fever, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Symptoms might be different at different times of the year. It depends on the kinds of plants that grow where you live and what allergies you have.

What are symptoms of allergies?

  • sneezing, often with a runny or clogged nose;

  • coughing and postnasal drip;

  • itching eyes, nose and throat;

  • watering eyes;

  • "allergic shiners" (dark circles under the eyes caused by increased blood flow near the sinuses);

  • "allergic salute" (in a child, persistent upward rubbing of the nose that causes a crease mark on the nose.)

What are the major seasonal irritants in the Richmond area?

According to the American Lung Association's allergy map, tree pollens are a problem here March through June; grass pollens are a problem June through November; and ragweed in August and September.

The Web site www.pollen.com says cedar, maple, juniper and birch tree pollens are causing problems in the area now.

What are some tips for preventing seasonal allergy symptoms?

  • Remain indoors with the windows closed in the morning, when the outdoor pollen levels are highest. Save outside activities for late afternoon or after a rain, when pollen levels are lower.

  • Keep windows in your home and car closed to lower exposure. To keep cool, use air conditioners. Avoid using window fans.

  • Be aware that pollen can be brought indoors on people and pets.

  • Dry clothes in an automatic dryer rather than hanging them outside where they can collect pollen.

  • Take your vacation at the height of pollen season. Vacationing at the seashore or on a cruise may help avoid pollen allergies.

  • Have someone else mow your lawn, or wear a mask. Keep grass short.

  • If you plant trees, look for species that do not aggravate allergies such as crape myrtle, dogwood, fig, fir, palm, pear, plum, redbud and redwood or the female cultivars of ash, box elder, cottonwood, maple, palm, poplar or willow.

What are the most common treatments?

  • Medications: antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays, cromolyn nasal spray, decongestants.

  • Allergy shots.

What's new in treatment?

  • Sublingual therapy, in which allergen extracts typically are injected to desensitize folks to allergens, are given orally as drops or tablets placed under the tongue.

  • Short-course injection therapy in which allergy desensitization shots are given over a shorter period.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, FDA

Contact staff writer Tammie Smith at TLsmith@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6572.

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