Spring is so close you can almost smell it -- unless of course you suffer from seasonal allergies. In which case, you'll just have to take someone's word for it. According to Dr. Michael L. Lewin, an allergist with offices in Wilton and New York City, now is the perfect time to address issues that might not surface until after the vernal equinox.

Allergic reactions are the body's response to an invasion. When your interior sentries detect foreign substances (antigens), the immune system is triggered. Its antibodies attack the allergen, which leads to the release of histamines, which trigger allergic symptoms.

Allergy sufferers might be miserable in the springtime – or any time, for that matter – but they're far from alone. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 26 million Americans endure chronic seasonal allergies.

"And it's certainly not too early to think about addressing spring allergies," says Dr. Lewin. He explains that allergens responsible for early spring afflictions begin with tree pollens, which are released when young buds develop into leaves. "The pollens [in New England] typically become a factor around the beginning of April, and grass pollens follow around mid-May," he says. Then, he adds, ragweed season factors into the allergic equation. Now, before these allergens are pervasive, is the appropriate time to take action in preventing symptoms.

But how does a person discern between an early spring allergic condition and a late winter cold? Colds usually last five to seven days and can be accompanied by fever, body aches and other symptoms, explains Dr. Lewin. People experiencing persistent cold-like respiratory symptoms -- without fever and body aches -- might be suffering from allergies. And in addition to congestion and coughing, allergy symptoms can include sneezing, itchy and/or watery eyes runny nose and postnasal drip, sinus pain (headaches, congestion) and itchy, stuffy ears. But allergy symptoms can also manifest as eczema, hives and other skin rashes, he adds.

Dr. Lewin suggests that sufferers with intermittent or occasional symptoms consider seeking relief from over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines, salt-water nasal rinses and eye drops. If symptoms are more persistent -- and if they interfere with regular activities or quality of life – he advises seeing an allergist.

But steering clear of the irritants that affect you is the best line of defense against symptoms. In other words, don't bring the outdoors indoors with you. Wiping your feet off before walking into the house so you don't track pollen in with you is a good start, and immediately taking off and washing clothes is also helpful in reducing allergens, as is closing windows when the pollen count is particularly high.

When over the counter medication and household mitigation aren't keeping the antigens at bay, among the treatments Dr. Lewin offers his patients are pre-seasonal "drops protocol." Allergy drops are a form of immunotherapy wherein drops of allergen extracts are placed under the tongue. It is an effective way to reduce allergic symptoms, he says. Like standard allergy shots, such courses of action can treat acute symptoms, as well as prevent further recurrences of allergies.

So, before your wave your white tissue in surrender to allergies, take action. Then, think spring.

Are you among the legions of American allergy sufferers? What are you allergic to? Let me know here, or email me, at .