(NEWSnet/AP) – Allergy season began earlier, and is stronger than usual, this spring.

“This season has been so nuts," said Dr. Rachna Shah, an allergist and director of the Loyola Medicine Allergy Count. “Granted, it was a pretty mild winter, but I didn't expect it to be so early.”

And although there was an early start, Shah said she believes this season will be longer than other years, assuming the weather remains warm. Experts say climate change has led to longer and more intense allergy seasons

More than 80 million Americans deal with itchy eyes, runny nose and other symptoms of seasonal allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

The foundation issues an annual ranking of the most challenging cities to live in if you have allergies, based on over-the-counter medicine use, pollen counts and the number of available allergy specialists. This year, the top five were Wichita, Kansas; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Greenville, South Carolina; Dallas; and Oklahoma City.

“People are pretty miserable right now and allergists are pretty busy,” said Dr. Nana Mireku, an allergist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

There are three main types of pollen that cause seasonal allergies. Earlier in the spring, tree pollen is the main culprit. After that grasses pollinate, followed by weeds in the late summer and early fall.

Some of the most common tree pollens that cause allergies include birch, cedar, cottonwood, maple, elm, oak and walnut, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Grasses that cause symptoms include Bermuda, Johnson, rye and Kentucky bluegrass.

The best and first step to controlling allergies is avoiding exposure. That’s easier said than done when everyone wants to enjoy spring weather. Pollen trackers can help with that information and planning.

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology tracks levels through a network of counting stations across the U.S. Those reports are available at its website and via email.

The next step is figure out is what specifically you're allergic to, Mireku said, but many Americans are affected by multiple allergens.

Over-the-counter nasal sprays can help relieve symptoms, but they take a while to kick in, so it's best to start them in early March, Shah said.

Antihistamines are another option.

And for some people, immunotherapies in the form of shots and oral drops can help desensitize the immune system to allergens, treating symptoms at their root.

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