Here come the cherry blossoms.

Get ready. Get set. SNEEZE!

Does it help to know that the cherry blossoms didn't make it out for the festival? Does it help to know that even tomorrow, the last day of the festival, not very many of those delicate pink petals will be open? Even knowing that, you're still sneezing?

Not too surprising, inasmuch as all that sweet-blossom perfume isn't what's making you sneeze, anyway.

Sniffly sneezy princesses at the ball will have to look elsewhere to place the blame. Trees with blossoms tend to cross-pollinate (like flowers) by way of insects rather than on prevailing breezes. Cherry-blossom pollen may be on the bees' knees, but not in your air.

What then, if not the cherry blossoms? For one, there are the elms--what few have survived the Dutch elm disease. They and the maples are manufacturing pollen by the cloud. And the oaks are not far behind. Also the beeches, the birches and the willows.

Dr. Stanley Wolf, who runs The Allergy Center in Silver Spring, says that if you're sniffling, sneezing, weeping and wheezing right now, you are probably reacting to maple. Last month it was poplars.

Oak-tree pollen starts annoying the sensitive around mid-April, says Wolf, "along with income taxes." (Oak pollen is that greenish-yellowish fuzzy stuff that collects on your car. If that's your seasonal sneeze, oak is the culprit.) "People," says Wolf, "simply do not realize the enormity. One oak can produce a million grains of pollen in one day . . . and they can float on the breezes for miles."

When the pollen count is only 7 per cubic foot, some people start having problems.

Back in the days when I made it (but barely) from the first thaw to the first frost with a nose that put Rudolph's to shame, plus puffy, streaming, itchy eyes and an all-time record of 23 successive sneezes without having to catch a breath, I discovered an essay by the late humorist Robert Benchley. I copied it out of a library book in long-hand and carried it around (with my Kleenexes) for years. It didn't make me sneeze less, but I think it saved my sanity.

It said, in part:

"People can have sunburn, hangnails or even ordinary head colds and their more fortunate mates will say, 'Aw, that's too bad! Why don't you just take the day off and go home?' But the minute anyone with hay fever comes along, even though he be blind and gasping for breath, the entire community stops work and screams with laughter . . ."

People, especially doctors, don't laugh about allergies as much anymore. In the first place, says Wolf, about half of all hay-fever sufferers eventually get asthma. And nobody denies that it's pretty hard to function without breathing.

On the other hand, more help is at nose than ever before.

There are, notes Wolf, several different, over-the-counter antihistamines. If one doesn't help, another may. (Don't drive when you're taking an antihistamine because they tend to make you drowsy and especially, don't drink. The two together can make a triple whammy that can, on occasion, end your hay fever by ending your life.)

Wolf says that it's time to seek professional help when the hay fever is so bad it means radical changes in your life style or work habits. A couple weeks in the spring or in the fall can be finessed, but if it hangs on longer than that, see a doctor.

You may be a candidate for a veritable smorgasbord of increasingly effective remedies. Three new steroid nasal sprays are so quickly metabolized that they are not absorbed into the blood stream and therefore do not have the side effects of other preparations with cortisone. All based on the same principle, they have been approved by the FDA in time for this year's Cherry Blossom Festival cum-maple-tree pollen. Have to get them from a doctor, though.

Then, says Wolf, there are things you can do to lessen the impact.

* Don't jog or even walk early in the morning or in the evening because when the air is cooler (and not rising) there's more pollen at nose level. For a couple of weeks you can run in place at home or get out at lunchtime.

* If you plan a vacation to get away from the pollen season--grasses, say, in July--"Don't go North," warns Wolf. "The season at Cape Cod, for example, is about two weeks behind ours and you may just be adding two weeks to your misery."

* Wash your hair (shampoo optional) at night so you don't get pollen on your pillow. Encourage your Significant Other to do likewise. Leave your shoes out of the bedroom, too.

* Use your car air conditioner even if you also have to use the heater. It may not be energy-efficient for your car, but think of all the energy you waste in a sneeze . . .

* Keep your windows closed at home until about 9 p.m.

One more thing. My hay fever ended when I was pregnant with my first child. It never came back, at least not in the virulent form I had into my 20s.

"Well yes," says Wolf, "that happens. There can be all kinds of changes. But of course some women never get hay fever until after they get pregnant . . . and it is a bit radical."

Maybe so.

But nothing ventured . . .