Itchy eyes, sneezing, and runny noses due to spring allergies may be arriving sooner than ever this year. Monitoring from around the country suggests that pollen counts are not only kicking in early, but they may break records.
Experts say climate change and shifting weather patterns may be largely to blame.
As an example, pollen counts in Atlanta were in the “extreme high” range last week, according to the pollen monitor Atlanta Allergy and Asthma — the earliest that counts have hit this level in 30 years. Measures above 1,500 indicate pollen is in the “extreme high” zone, and on Monday, March 6, total pollen count reached 1,605. By the next day, the number had more than doubled to 3,967.
“Pollen season is starting earlier and lasting longer,” says allergist Stanley Fineman, MD, who is affiliated with Atlanta Allergy and Asthma and is a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
He adds that pollen counts in his area have been increasing by about 5 percent a year over the last 27 years. In general, pollen seasons have been starting 20 days earlier, are 10 days longer, and produce 21 percent more pollen than in 1990, according to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
The ‘Spring Leaf Out’ Is Starting in Winter
Most spring allergies are triggered by tree pollen, notes the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Grains of pollen get carried by the winds and find their way into eyes, noses, and lungs, triggering allergic reactions. The AAFA points out that flowers, for the most part, do not cause these allergic reactions.
Across the Southwest and Southeast, the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), which monitors the impact of climate change on plants and animals nationwide, has been recording first leaf and first blooms since at least early February. The organization’s tracking shows that plants have been showing their leaves 8 to 20 days earlier in areas of Texas and the Carolinas.
Although spring doesn’t officially begin until March 21, the USA-NPN says that the “spring leaf out” is continuing to spread north, arriving several days to weeks earlier than average in much of the Southeast, lower Midwest, and mid-Atlantic. Indianapolis, for example, is 22 days early and Philadelphia is 20 days early.
Climate Shifts May Be to Blame for Pollen Season’s Early Arrival
Dr. Fineman believes that warming climate trends are mostly responsible for the premature arrival of pollen season. NIFA notes that rises in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by climate change have been leading to more pollen production.
Air pollution not only heats the planet, but it pumps microparticles into the air, which can increase the risk and severity of allergy and asthma attacks, warns the AAFA.
A study published in Frontiers in Allergy by the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute in December found that by 2050, climate change will significantly increase airborne pollen loads, with some of the largest surges occurring in areas where pollen is historically uncommon.
The research predicted that in parts of Nevada and northern Texas, oak pollen levels could double by mid-century, while Massachusetts and Virginia could see an 80 percent increase in ragweed pollen by 2050.
“The production of pollen and pollen’s influence on allergic disease has been increasing due to climate change,” said study author Panos Georgopoulos, PhD, a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice at the Rutgers School of Public Health, in a press release. “For people with asthma, exposure to pollen and irritants like ozone increases the odds of respiratory illness. To protect the most vulnerable, we need to understand how these irritants will behave in a warming world.”
Brenna Doheny, PhD, executive director of the nonprofit Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and a post-doctoral associate at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, has noticed the effects of climate change in her state. “Winters are warming faster in more northern parts of the country,” she says. “In Minnesota we are seeing, on average, five fewer days of winter and five more days of deep, hot, humid summer, so that is impacting growing seasons.”
This trend has created a longer period of time for plants to grow and bloom, producing pollen. Overall warming is also allowing certain pollinating plants to survive further and further north, according to Dr. Doheny.
How Can People Protect Themselves During Allergy Season?
As pollen counts have skyrocketed, Fineman has been dealing with a heavier load of complaints due to pollen-related allergies in early March. In the past he’s typically seen more of these issues in late March or early April.
“For patients who have springtime allergy symptoms, it is best to have allergy testing to document their specific allergic sensitivities,” he says. “An allergist can also provide an allergy management plan to help the patient manage their symptoms. Allergen immunotherapy or allergy injections can be very good at helping the patient build tolerance to the allergens and significantly reduce symptoms with exposure and subsequent years.”
In addition to this advice, the AAFA offers these tips to help cope with spring allergies and help reduce the risk of inhaling pollens:
This content was originally published here.