Get Ready for the Worst Allergy Season We’ve Ever Had
If you’re suddenly sneezing your head off, you’re not alone. Here’s why, and what to do.
The 2020 allergy season will be “brutal,” AccuWeather meteorologists predict, and the misery is well underway across much of the country. Indeed, Clifford Bassett, MD, founder and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, says we are in the midst of an “allergy explosion.” “I’m seeing more and more first-time sufferers of all ages,” he says. And according to Melanie Carver, vice president of Community Health at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), which tracks such trends: “Each pollen season has been progressively worse than previous seasons.”
The main culprit behind the sneezing is pollen, which is essentially plant sperm — and nature is promiscuous. (You know this if you have ever seen your car turn yellow overnight.) One ragweed plant alone can produce a billion grains. Early in the spring, trees such as oak and birch shed the stuff. By late spring through fall, grasses and weeds take over as major sources, so there’s the potential for months of suffering. The wind can carry grains for miles, and they are small enough to get into your eyes, nose, and lungs. “Allergies happen when your immune system misidentifies pollen as a threatening invader and overreacts,” says Bassett, who is also the author of The New Allergy Solution. Mast cells, immune cells found in connective tissue in the skin, nose, lungs, and elsewhere, pump out histamine, which creates inflammation and causes your runny nose, itchy eyes, and sneezing. (Any sniffle can be alarming in these times, but there are ways to distinguish allergy symptoms from Covid-19 symptoms.)
What’s making allergies worse?
Why would you suddenly develop seasonal allergies when you have been peacefully cohabitating with the local flora for years? Many allergy sufferers have an underlying genetic predisposition to develop a variety of common allergic conditions, including allergic rhinitis and asthma, eczema, food, medication, and skin allergies, says Bassett, but they can develop at any age. Some triggers to adult-onset allergies include: Repeated or overwhelming exposure to an allergen, moving to a new location with unfamiliar-to-you plant species, or experiencing a change in immunity such as after pregnancy.
Now there’s growing evidence that climate change is producing a veritable paradise for pollen, resulting in a dramatic increase in allergy rates and severity. A 2019 study in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health looked at airborne pollen levels over the past several decades for 17 locations around the world — including across Europe, Canada, Iceland, and the U.S. More than two-thirds of the locations showed a “significant” increase in pollen levels during that time, as well as longer pollen seasons, linked to rising average temperatures. “When spring comes earlier, trees bloom and start to produce pollen early. This results in people getting exposed to allergenic tree pollen for a longer period of time,” says Amir Sapkota, PhD, a professor of Environmental Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
The researchers estimate that airborne pollen levels are set to double in the future.
Sapkota’s 2019 study used National Health Interview Survey data from 2001–2013 and found in areas where the onset of spring came weeks earlier than average, measured by visible greening of the landscape captured by satellite images, there was a 14% higher prevalence of hay fever. “Surprisingly, we also found a similar increase in hay fever risk in areas where the onset was much later. We hypothesize that when spring onset is very late, pollen concentration in the environment can be very high for a short period of time since so many species start blooming and releasing pollen all at once. You are hit with this more intense pollen exposure.”
Meanwhile, our growing use of fossil fuel, oil, gas, and coal is pumping more and more CO2 into the air. As you may recall from high school biology, CO2 fuels photosynthesis. Higher levels of the gas essentially act as a powerful fertilizer, so individual plants produce more pollen. Indeed, research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, exposed timothy grass to differing levels of CO2 in a laboratory. Plants growing in environments with CO2 levels of 800 ppm produced twice as much pollen as those growing in 400 ppm. Extrapolating their findings to real-world CO2 trends, the researchers estimate that airborne pollen levels are set to double in the future.
While you may associate seasonal allergies with leafy suburbs and rolling farmland, in fact they can hit city dwellers hardest, says Aaron Bernstein, MD, director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “In cities, CO2 levels can be up to 30% higher and temperatures can be 3 degrees warmer. Pavement and dark roofs can create urban heat islands,” he explains. Higher levels of pollution there may make allergens more potent too: “There is some evidence that particles that are created through diesel exhaust may serve as vehicles to get pollen deeper into our lungs,” Bernstein says. Bassett also points to “botanical sexism” (a term coined by horticulturist Thomas Ogren): Urban planners increasingly favor pollen-producing male trees which, unlike females, don’t shed messy pods or berries.
How can you lessen the symptoms?
If you find yourself among the sniffling legions this year, allergists offer tips for self-care. Apps such as My Pollen Forecast can give you daily counts so you can strategize activities like outdoor exercise or opening windows. Take steps to reduce your personal pollen load. “When you get home, wash your hair, shower, and toss your clothes in the washer. Especially at bedtime, you don’t want to bring pollen into bed with you all night,” says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health. (Pollen will rub off on your sheets and you will essentially be sleeping all night in a meadow.) When you go outside, don a hat to keep pollen from sticking to your hair and wear oversize sunglasses to block the stuff from landing on your eyes and lids, where it could cause red, watery eyes.The masks we are all wearing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 may actually be “a blessing in disguise for allergy sufferers,” says Parikh. They do double duty blocking not just virus particles but also pollen, she says. Just make sure to wash reusable masks after every use or discard disposable ones. If you share your home with furry pollen magnets, towel them off before they come inside, suggests the AAFA.
OTC products can treat the symptoms and make you more comfortable, says Parikh, who recommends nasal corticosteroid sprays such as Flonase and long-acting antihistamines such as Allegra and Zyrtec. “If you experience coughing, especially at night, wheezing, shortness of breath, or chest tightness, seek medical help immediately because those can be signs of asthma. We still have 10 deaths a day due to allergic asthma in this country.” (Many asthma symptoms overlap with Covid-19 — another reason to get such worrisome symptoms checked stat.) The only way to reduce or eliminate your allergic reaction in the first place is through desensitization. An allergist can test you to identify your specific triggers and administer a series of shots (or in some cases tablets) that work to train your immune system to be less reactive to the offending substance. (Depending on where you live, this in-office treatment may need to wait until social distancing guidelines relax and doctors are treating non-emergencies.)
Of course, the biggest remedy for sufferers, present and future, may be reducing the root cause of the pollen explosion itself. “The perception is that climate change is a problem for the distant future, a problem for someone else, somewhere else,” says Bernstein. “But the increase in allergies suggests the effects of climate change on our health are with us right now.” Fixing this enormous problem can start with changing attitudes, he says: “Think of people’s willingness to stay at home, work from home, and forgo social encounters during Covid-19 to protect their health and their families. When it comes to climate change, we need this kind of cultural shift too. When you bike to work instead of driving, or replace meat with a plant-based meal, that helps shift the message for everyone — this is what we do.”