For allergy sufferers, the sounds of spring have arrived, in the form of sniffing, sneezing and coughing.
And this year, they're accompanied by complaints that this season is one of the worst in memory.
"Allergy season came a bit sooner and faster, and that's what took everyone by surprise," said Dr. Sonali Majmudar, an allergist and immunologist based in Hoffman Estates, who said many of her patients report that they've never struggled with allergies before this season.
Sharon Silver, of Glenview, said her symptoms — a runny nose and eyes so itchy that one of them almost wouldn't open — are worse than she can recall.
"There have been some years I forgot I even had allergies," said Silver, 69. "But this year, whoa, they are back with a vengeance."
The choppy, indecisive early spring weather for which Chicago is known, with temperatures jumping between balmy and freezing every few days, might also be to blame, Majmudar said. When it warms up and cools down, pollination starts and stops and immune systems don't know how to react, she said.
Also contributing: one of the rainiest Aprils on record. While that might be great for yard plants, it's a big problem for people with allergies, said Dr. Joseph Leija.
Leija, an allergist at Loyola University Health System's Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, also called this the most severe allergy season he has seen in years.
Tree allergy season, which usually begins to wane by early May, is still going strong this year, said Leija, who provides pollen counts for the Midwest to the National Allergy Bureau.
Aside from the rain, windy conditions tend to blow pollen around more than normal, said Paul Merzlock, lead forecaster in the Chicago office of the National Weather Service. But Merzlock said he doesn't know of any particular weather pattern that would make this year different from the rest.
The combination of rain and wind in Chicago this spring may be a lose-lose situation for allergy sufferers, said Dr. Mark Jacobson, an asthma and allergy specialist in Hinsdale and past president of the Illinois Society of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
"On dry, windy days, there tends to be more pollen in the air," he said. "On rainy days, the pollen tends to be washed out of the air, but then the mold counts will be higher."
But, don't crown the 2011 season the worst ever for allergies just yet, said Dr. Mark Kaplan, of Asthma and Allergy Consultants Ltd., which has offices in Highland Park, Gurnee and Libertyville. He thinks the allergy problem gets blown out of proportion each year.
"People have short memories," Kaplan said. "They forget how bad their allergies were last year. It was bad last year, and it will be bad next year too."
Kaplan said that his office is very busy this time of year, but that it's hard to say whether it's worse than any other year.
"I don't want to say there isn't significant pollen," Kaplan said. "We do have people that are miserable."
Avoiding allergic triggers as much as possible is the No. 1 thing Jacobson said people can do to help themselves this allergy season.
"From a practical standpoint, this would primarily involve keeping the windows shut and running the air conditioning," he said. "Focus should be placed particularly on the bedroom since you spend a third of your life there."
Leija said people who work outside should be sure to shower and change their clothes before going to bed to avoid leaving pollen on their bedding that will prolong their allergy suffering.
Other tips include staying inside during early morning hours when pollen count is highest and avoiding lawn-mowing or freshly cut grass, said Jacobson, who also suggests using a dryer for laundry rather than hanging it outside.
Allergists also say it's easy to confuse symptoms of seasonal allergies with that of the common cold. Typically, a cold lasts no more than seven days, while allergies can last for weeks or months, Majmudar said.
She also said that deeper coughs and thicker mucus are typically signs of a cold or other infection.
"This spring has hit people hard," Majmudar said. "It's important to try to identify what exactly you're allergic to, then treat it."