According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), about 45 million Americans suffer from from seasonal allergies, which are triggered by an immune response to pollens from trees, grasses or weeds, or to airborne mold spores.
Pollen levels over the past few years have been unusually elevated, with the overall season starting earlier and lasting longer. This year, the start of allergy season has been delayed by a few days to a week, but experts are warning that sufferers should prepare themselves for a severe season ahead.
“There’s been a delay in the early allergy season because of the cold weather, but that can cause a double whammy [later in the season],” Dr. Clifford W. Bassett, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York and an ambassador for the AAFA, told weather.com. The pollen count is now predicted to spike just as late spring and summer grasses emerge, “creating twice the misery for people with allergies,” reports weather.com.
These trends are projected to continue in the future, as increased carbon dioxide and climate change contribute to longer and more severe allergy seasons with a wider variety of allergens, said Dr. Bassett.
“There’s a couple factors,” said Dr. Bassett. “One is the rising long term increase in carbon dioxide and its effect on increased production of pollen,” and another is what he calls “the priming effect,” which occurs when temperatures make big jumps in small periods of time — a phenomenon that can trigger increased sensitivity to allergens and, subsequently, more severe symptoms.
Rising temperatures in many parts of the country also play a role, said Dr. Bassett, explaining that hotter temperatures during the summer months can pave the way for a more severe pollen season the following spring. “The summer temperature may have an impact on the following spring season as far as grass and tree pollen, which are the representative and most important pollen in the spring.”
In fact, there is strong evidence that warmer temperatures have already begun to affect pollen seasons, causing them to start earlier and last longer. A 2011 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that since 1995, the ragweed pollen season has grown longer — as much as 13-to-27 days longer — across much of the U.S. And according to a 2014 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, climate warming patterns and the subsequent weather effects are “an important factor” in causing the pollen allergy season to be more intense.
“To add insult to injury the wet winter seasons that feature heavy precipitation (like this winter’s record-breaking snow totals) are also having an impact on the upcoming pollen season,” says weather.com.
Climate models predicts that over the next several decades spring will continue to creep forward, particularly in northern regions of the U.S., which are likely to see more dramatic winter and spring warming trends, which will extend the length of pollen seasons even more.
And it’s not just the warming temperatures and earlier onset of spring that are affecting pollen production. All the CO2 being added to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is also compounding the problem. CO2 helps stimulate plant growth, and several recent studies have shown that when plants are exposed to more CO2, they tend to produce more pollen.
“With this carbon dioxide prevalence, we think certain pollens will be more prevalent and more potent, which is a very major factor,” said Dr. Bassett.
This is why experts have started recommending that sufferers take preventive measures before the onset of spring allergies, which is more effective than waiting until symptoms have emerged.
“It’s a really good idea to start early, because if you have your armamentarium on board protecting you, the medication will be a lot more effective and you’ll feel better,” Dr. Laura Mechanic, chief of allergy at White Plains Hospital, told USA Today. “A lot of people who wait end up suffering longer and on even more medication for a longer period of time.”
If your allergies aren’t bad enough to warrant a prescription, there are other ways to reduce symptoms. Eating healthy foods can reduce symptoms; cleaning air conditioning and furnace filters every three months can minimize pollen and mold in the air; and wearing sunglasses when outside keeps irritants away, reducing itchiness and redness.