Spring means the return of warm weather, flowers and yard work. It also marks the start of allergy medication, pollen count reports and trips to the store for tissues.

Have nasal allergies? You're hardly alone. Pollen-based allergies affect some 50 million people in the United States. About two-thirds of allergy sufferers actually have symptoms most or all year long. Fewer than 20 percent have allergies specific to one season, says James Sublett, MD, an allergist-immunologist in Louisville, Kentucky, and president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Fortunately, modern medicine can help.

Related: Allergy Relief for Your Child

Is it a cold or an allergy?

If you’re not sure whether that cough or sneeze is a spring cold or hay fever, look at your symptoms, says Christina Porch-Curren, MD, an allergist with Coastal Allergy Care in Camarillo, California. An allergy can have many of the same symptoms of a cold, including a blocked or runny nose, watery eyes and cough. But a viral illness is typically short lived and doesn’t keep recurring. A fever is also a tell-tale sign that you’re sick with someone other than allergies.

When to see an allergist 

For most people, allergies are bothersome. For people with asthma, they can be worse than annoying; they can be dangerous. 

“If someone is bothered by their symptoms to the point when they’re not content with the medications they’re on, or if they have conditions like asthma or eczema, it’s time to have allergies objectively identified to know what is triggering them,” adds Miguel Wolbert, MD, medical director at West Texas Allergy and a clinical associate in pediatrics at Texas Tech University.

Porch-Curren recommends that people who have severe allergy symptoms or complicating factors such as asthma consult an allergist “sooner rather than later.” An allergist can test to see what you’re allergic too and the severity of your allergy, and can advise a course of treatment.

Related: Could a Dishwasher Raise Your Child’s Allergy, Asthma Risk?

How to treat an allergy

Unfortunately, there are no cures for allergies, only treatments. Wolbert says allergists use a three-step approach to treating symptoms:

1. Reducing your exposure. The first step to reducing allergy symptoms is to eliminate or reduce the cause. Staying inside during high-pollen count days and windy days, and using air filters (HEPA air filters are ideal) can reduce pollen exposure. If you are planning prolonged outdoor activities, doing them after it has rained is best as the moisture tends to leave less pollen floating around the air. If you went outside and got covered in pollen or ragweed, removing your clothes, washing them and taking a shower can help reduce symptoms.

2. Medications. There are plenty of medications to treat allergy symptoms, including over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays. Your allergist can suggest the best medicines for you and when in the season to start them. A general rule of thumb: Allergy medicine works best if you take it before you're exposed to the allergen. Steroid sprays usually work best when you use them every day. If your eyes itch, antihistamine eye drops, available over-the-counter and by prescription, are another option.

3. Immunotherapy. Allergy shots involve a series of injections that slowly build up your immune system's tolerance of the substance you're allergic to. The shots are highly effective and can significantly reduce the severity of a person’s allergies, the ACAAI says. If your allergies really bother you and you're willing to make a commitment to getting the shots (the build-up phase involves getting shots once or twice a week for three to six months, and it's followed by a maintenance phase), this is an approach worth exploring. 

Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) allergy tablets, which you place under your tongue at home, may be another option depending on what you're allergic to.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, immunotherapy often provides relief even after you're done with the treatments, which makes it the closest thing we have to a cure.  

What about natural therapies for allergies? Most haven’t been proven that effective, Wolbert says. “Therapies like local honey really don’t help much,” Wolbert says. “However, just being healthy and eating healthy will help the immune system and your overall health.”

Related: Spring Clean Your Medicine Cabinet

Ronald Agrella is a freelance writer and former editor of The Boston Globe’s Boston.com.