Itchy eyes, runny nose?

Oh, those itchy, watery eyes, runny nose and constant sneezing. What’s going on? Isn’t it awfully early for allergy season?

TORONTO — Oh, those itchy, watery eyes, runny nose and constant sneezing. What’s going on? Isn’t it awfully early for allergy season?

Well, normally the answer would be yes, say experts. But not this spring, which follows the mildest and driest Canadian winter on record.

Trees, shrubs and other vegetation have begun bursting into leaf and flower much earlier than usual, pumping scads of pollen into the air and hence taking many seasonal allergy sufferers by surprise.

“Anecdotally, I’m hearing reports from all over the country about people who are wheezing and gasping and sniffling and have a runny nose and watery eyes,” said David Phillips, a Toronto-based senior climatologist for Environment Canada. “I think it’s directly related to the weather.”

“The growing season has started much sooner and more intensely,” Phillips said Monday. “Everybody’s reporting farmers on the fields and flowering of trees and shrubs going on right now … It’s about two to three weeks earlier than we normally would see and in some cases even longer than that in other parts of the country.”

Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergy expert at McMaster University, said she’s also noticed a difference.

“I think the season has emerged earlier and the patients who I’ve seen in clinic, who come in for a variety of reasons, even if they come in for food allergy or asthma, many of them are tree-pollen allergic and do complain of earlier symptoms this year,” she said from Hamilton.

The tendency to develop allergies often runs in families, Waserman said, explaining that a person develops antibodies to generally harmless substances such as pollen, pet dander and dust mites. That immune reaction can trigger symptoms of rhinitis, such as a runny nose and itchy eyes.

And because it’s airborne, pollen is easily inhaled through the nose and into the lungs, she said, noting that it also can spark an asthma attack in people afflicted by the airway-narrowing condition.

But people made miserable by allergies to pollen — and to grass later in the spring and to ragweed in late summer — can take steps to alleviate symptoms and breathe easier.

“If you are pollen allergic, then air-conditioning; keep the windows of your house closed, as well as that of the car,” Waserman said.

Over-the-counter antihistamines work well for the mildest nasal and eye symptoms, she said, recommending long-acting and non-sedating products. If an antihistamine doesn’t work sufficiently, the doctor may prescribe what’s known as an intranasal steroid.

Allergy injections are another mainstay of treatment, administered pre-season when it comes to pollen, grass and ragweed allergies, or throughout the year for people affected by such substances as pet dander or dust mites.

“Prior to that, you really do need to see an allergist, and you need to see an allergist to help you identify what you’re allergic to before even embarking on injections,” Waserman said.

Phillips said El Nino, the Pacific weather anomaly, was one factor in Canada experiencing such a warm, dry winter that kickstarted the spring growing season and spewed an explosion of pollen into the atmosphere.

“Our models are saying more of the same,” he said. “Our models are showing right across the country as warmer than normal in May and June and July. So that will just exacerbate the situation.” And while he can’t say that global warming has anything to do with this year’s early spring, Phillips said one of the fallouts of climate change over time will be an earlier and longer growing season if the Earth’s average temperature continues to rise.

“So what we see this year may in fact be almost a dress rehearsal of what we may see that would be more the norm in years to come.”