Kern County has unique challenges when it comes to allergies and asthma. Our location, at the southern point of the San Joaquin Valley, allows pollen and pollution to pool without escape due to the high mountains that surround us. Our spring pollen season actually begins in mid- to late January, with trees blooming as early as the first of the year and as late as the first week in February. This coincides with the latter half of the cold and flu season, so many people can't tell if they are battling a recurring cold or suffering from chronic allergies. My goal is to help you sort out the key signs and symptoms of allergic airway disease -- hay fever and asthma -- and provide you with tips that will help you control symptoms during the allergy season.

So let's begin with the basics. How do you know if you are having a head cold or an allergy flare? Our noses respond to any irritants, no matter the source (smoke, smog, pollens, perfumes or cleaners), in pretty much the same way. It will try to block entrance into the airway by causing the nose to swell closed. It might try to wash the irritant away by causing the nose to run. Sneezing helps to propel the irritant or particle out of the nose quickly. Whether you have a cold or an allergy flare, you will have nasal congestion, a runny nose, postnasal drip and/or sneezing, but allergies are also associated with itching. The intense sensation to itch your nose, eyes or throat should be the main clue that you are dealing with an allergy flare.

Now that we are in the midst of the spring pollen season, how can you minimize your exposure to it? Keeping your windows closed at night can minimize your exposure to peak pollen levels. Pollen levels reach their highest point around 3 a.m. as they drift close to the Earth's surface. They rise up in the atmosphere in the early to midmorning and remain there until dusk when they start making their way back down to the surface again. Using your air conditioner can help prevent pollen from entering your home. Taking showers at night can rinse pollen (which has collected on your skin and in your hair) off before going to bed. Drying your bedding in the dryer can prevent pollen from embedding itself in pillowcases and sheets, preventing nocturnal flares.

If controlling your environment is not enough to control your symptoms, your next step is medication management. Many people forget about the simple benefits of using saline sinus rinses. These can be purchased in kits at local drug or health food stores. These products help remove the pollen debris from the nasal passages by flushing them out of the nose. By cleansing pollen from the nose, saline disrupts pollen's ability to trigger swelling or mucus production. Saline rinses can be very helpful at the onset of a sinus infection as well. There are several over-the-counter antihistamine tablets that can also calm allergy symptoms. The 12- to 24-hour preparations are the best because they are less likely to make you drowsy and can control sneezing, runny nose and itching. Nasal steroid sprays are the gold standard for preventive allergy therapy. They help prevent nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing and itching. More recently, nasal antihistamines have been shown to be effective in combination with nasal steroids to prevent seasonal and perennial allergy symptoms.

Allergy injection therapy can be a great option for those who want a long-term plan for allergy treatment. This modality is designed to alter the way your immune system responds to allergens. It is a three- to five-year treatment plan that increases your immune system's tolerance to allergens. It is a time-intensive option initially, but it can be very beneficial.

There are many different ways that you can control your allergic disease. Knowing how to recognize allergic symptoms, minimize allergen exposure, and treat or prevent the symptoms will allow you to have a happy and healthy pollen season.

Dr. Paula D. Ardron is an allergist and immunologist for Kaiser Permanente in Bakersfield. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.