By Payal Patel, MD
After surviving the polar vortex of 2019, many of us are just itching for some warm weather. But for allergy sufferers, could that itch be worse this year compared to the years past? Is this year truly the worst allergy season?
To answer that question, we must first take into account the climate pattern changes that are predicted to take place in our future. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are predicting a double to triple rise in the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels within the next century. This rise in CO2 levels, in turn leads to changes in temperature and precipitation. Namely, Earth’s average temperature is expected to rise, as will the average global precipitation.
These global changes are the perfect setup for increasing pollen in the environment. This occurs by not only increasing the pollen production by some plants, but also by extending the pollen season.
We have already seen these changes take place. Doubling of CO2 in the Colorado shortgrass steppe plots led to a twenty-fold increase in the prairie sage ground covering. In the Midwest, an increase in CO2 levels extended the ragweed season by 13 to 27 days.
More mold, more pollen
A rise in global temperatures seen worldwide is also affecting pollen. This warming is associated with quicker flower production. Analyzing over 300 plant species over a decade in Europe, there was earlier onset of pollen season ranging from four to 15 days depending on the plant.
Some areas have seen a trifecta of changes. For example, birch tree pollen in northern Europe has increased in total pollen count, has had higher peak levels, and has had an earlier start to the season over the last 38 years.
Along with an increase in temperature, a global rise in precipitation and coastal flooding will also play a role in allergic diseases. In particular, mold growth is expected to rise given its reliance on wet, damp environments. This was seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where a significant rise in mold growth was seen both outside as well as inside flooded homes.
With the elevation of both pollen and mold already seen over the past couple of decades, those suffering from allergic diseases, such as hay fever or asthma, may very well find it more difficult to manage their symptoms during these seasons. Additionally, we have already seen a rise in development of allergic rhinitis from 10% in 1970 to 30% in 2000. This number will likely continue to climb in the future as studies have shown an increase in allergic sensitivity with increase in pollen and mold count.
Coping with allergies
Having allergies can lead to various symptoms such as stuffy or runny nose, itchy puffy eyes, sneezing or coughing. Identifying the specific triggers that are leading to these symptoms is the first step in managing allergic diseases. This allows you to accurately start a treatment plan that is specific to those triggers. Avoidance, as much as possible, of an allergen is key to preventing onset of symptoms. Specifically for outdoor exposures, try to stay indoors when pollen counts peak. Although this varies based on plant species, in general earlier part of the day sees higher pollen counts. Keeping the windows closed in the home and the car also helps minimize exposure to outdoor pollen and mold spores. If spending extended time outdoors, changing clothes and showering upon entering the home can prevent tracking pollen throughout the home.
When these measures are not fully adequate in controlling symptoms, medications may provide some relief. There are many different options available from nasal sprays to eye drops to pills; finding the right one that fits in your lifestyle is important.
Lastly, for those whom medications are not providing complete relief, or want other options besides medications immunotherapy is offered by allergists. Immunotherapy involves repeatedly exposing the body to the triggering allergen (such as pollen or mold) by either injection or tablet to help desensitize it. The right approach is different for each individual and can be determined in conjunction with your allergist.