The sneezing and itching are starting early this year.

Allergy sufferers have been sniffling their way into doctors’ offices and pharmacies for the past week or two, well before the usual arrival of tree pollen in late April. And they could be in for a long, uncomfortable spring.

“This is the worst season I’ve ever experienced,” said Julia Faunce of Augusta, her voice raspy because of her allergies. “Everything budded pretty much overnight. It got so warm.”

In some southern areas of the United States, a cold, snowy winter is being blamed for a sudden surge in pollen and allergy attacks. In Maine, the early pollen outbreak follows a wet and mild March and an unusually warm start to April.

In fact, Portland had its wettest March on record, with 11.24 inches of rain. And temperatures in the first 13 days of April averaged 9.8 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service.

The early spring means maple trees, cedar trees and other varieties are budding and sending pollen into the air weeks early, and allergists are getting an early rush of patients seeking relief.

“A lot of people think they have a spring cold or bronchitis or some other problem. They can acquire allergies at any age, and sometimes it takes a while to dawn on them that it’s allergies,” said Dr. Andrew Carey, an allergy specialist in Falmouth who has had an increase in early spring allergy visits.

Dr. Paul Shapero, an allergy specialist in Bangor, said he noticed the first patients coming in a couple of weeks ago.

That first wave of complaints was likely caused by air pollutants released by the spring thaw, he said. More recently, tree pollen levels have reached unusually high levels for April.

“Right now, it’s maple, cedar and alder (trees). Pine pollen hasn’t even been released into the air yet,” he said.

Once the trees are done spreading pollen, the grasses will start. In the late summer, ragweed and other weeds will trigger allergy attacks.

So, the fact that allergy season started early doesn’t mean that it will end early, or that pollen counts will soon drop, Shapero said. “It’s going to go higher,” he said. “It’s too early to pass.”

Rochelle Murray, who works as a horticulturist for Snell Family Farm in Buxton, is expecting a long season of itchy eyes and sinus headaches.

“I really noticed it about a week ago,” she said, although she has resisted the urge to take over-the-counter medicines so far. “I just deal with it until it gets really bad.”

Allergy sufferers may have to get used to early seasons like this one, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Wildlife Federation and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.

Climate change means increasingly early and long allergy seasons in Maine and the rest of the Northeast, according to the report. The increasing level of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use also is increasing production of certain tree pollens and ragweed, the report says.

It’s one of many emerging public health concerns related to pollution and climate change, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “While, for a lot of people, allergies can be an annoyance, for many people it can be a severe health problem,” she said.

Allergies, for example, can worsen respiratory conditions or trigger dangerous asthma attacks. Maine has the nation’s highest rates of childhood and adult asthma, Mills said.

Julia Faunce, the allergy sufferer in Augusta, has asthma. She had regular injections for the past five years to control her allergies, but stopped the shots in December. “That was a mistake,” she said Wednesday.

Faunce started coughing and wheezing at the end of March and ended up with a case of bronchitis, on top of allergy symptoms that are the worst she can remember. She has been out of work for two weeks.

“I’m a nurse, and it’s pretty tough to be coughing around patients all the time,” Faunce said.

People with allergies can minimize symptoms by keeping windows closed to keep pollen out of their homes, showering at night to wash off pollen, and even trying to get outdoor activities in after rainfall, when the pollen has been washed out of the air.

“If you’re an allergy sufferer, it’s hard. You want to be outside doing stuff in the yard, but you really can’t,” Faunce said. “Everything’s blowing.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com