Mother Nature seems to have traded in her rain poncho for sunny skies and flying pollen.

It's enough to make an allergy sufferer cry. And it's going to get worse before it gets better.Experts estimate that one in five people have some kind of reaction to pollen, ranging from mild nasal discomfort and itching eyes to life-threatening asthma reactions, according to the Mayo Clinic's hay fever guide.

Hay fever is caused by pollen. But the main culprit isn't the heavy, sweet pollen carried from plant to plant by the birds and the bees. The airborne, invisible pollen of the cedar, the sagebrush, grass and ragweed or mold and spores cause the most suffering. If a plant is pretty and smells nice, it's usually not the reason you're crying.

Suffering isn't too strong a word, according to Carol Maw, administrator of the Intermountain Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Salt Lake City. The clinic is the only place in Utah that counts pollen, which can travel up to 200 miles from its source.

The sampling is currently being done on a building in West Valley City. Thin rods are coated with a medium to which pollen adheres. Every 10 minutes over a 24-hour period, the rods come out and sample the air. Then the rods are examined, the pollens identified and counted by type. The clinic tracks 20 trees, up to five grasses, 15 weeds and about 12 types of mold. A count of 50 or more is considered very high. A count above 10 can cause sneezing, coughing, runny nose and watery eyes in those who are sensitive, Maw said.

Such allergies are the No. 1 cause of missed work and school. The most extreme case, asthma, is a "potentially fatal symptom of allergy."

Most years, allergy season runs from spring to fall and starts with tree spores, then grasses and weeds. But the weather was so warm the trees started pollinating early. And allergists predict that because of El Nino's effect on the weather, the season could go well into fall.

Last week, cedar and maple counts were excruciatingly high: 561 and 135 respectively. The high for ash was 102, cottonwood reached 42 and oak 27, while other pollen counts were actually low to moderate. But trees aren't expected to be the real source of pain this year. That honor goes to grass and weeds.

Heavy rains will create beautiful, thick - and allergy-torturing - grass. And weeds always thrive in these weather conditions. Grass is expected to take its toll in May, June and July. The weed season will come on its heels.

Then again, some rain and wind could change the whole picture, Maw said.

While no one can control the seasons - or the windswept misery of pollen - the suffering it causes can be reduced.

Here's a survival guide, suggested by Maw and by the National Institutes of Health:

- Hair is a giant pollen collector. Wash it every night before you go to bed and be sure to change pillowcases. Otherwise, you deposit the pollen from your hair onto the pillow and then "rub your face in it all night."

- Remain indoors in the morning, when pollen is most active. Those who are sensitive should wear masks that filter pollen if they must work outdoors.

- Some people schedule their vacations for peak allergy season and go where exposure is minimal, like the seashore.

- Use air conditioners and air filters inside both home and car.

- Immunotherapy can help prevent symptoms, but that's usually a slow process and for those who suffer seasonal allergies, may not be worthwhile.

In immunotherapy, people are given increasing doses of the pollens to which they are allergic until they build up tolerance. Sometimes it takes years.

- The best thing to do is avoid the pollen, mold or spore that torments you. It's easier, allergists agree, to prevent the symptoms than to get rid of them.

- Avoid irritants, like tobacco smoke and insect spray.

- Because the misery of allergies is caused by histamines, a good over-the-counter or prescription antihistamine can help. But Maw said that "with some, you're hard-pressed to operate a fork and knife." Different remedies have different degrees of sedating effect.

- Nasal decongestants can reduce symptoms, but check with a physician about side effects. And anyone with allergic rhinitis should avoid the nasal sprays, which can cause a "rebound phenomenon."

- For serious misery, consult a specialist for treatment tailored to the individual allergy.

*****

Additional Information

How allergies occur

1. Pollen and molds (allergens) are released into the air by plants.

2. Allergens are introduced into the body through the respiratory system.

3. Your body's reaction to allergens is to mobilize an attack against the invader. Your body produces antibodies (the same substance used to attack bacteria and viruses) to destroy what is actually a false alarm.

4. Allergen attach themselves to antibofdies that signal the body to release histimines and other powerful inflamatory chemicals that cause watery eye, nasal congestion, coughing, runny nose and other hay fever symptoms.