With more than 60 million Americans affected, allergens are an important health issue. We are seeing a new wave of allergens that are effecting more people. Compared to 1990, pollen season occurs 20 days earlier and stays around on average 8 days longer according to a 2021 study. Not only is the season longer, but the symptoms are more severe. Plants, grasses and trees are spraying 21% more pollen than they did 30 years ago. So what gives?
The cause is our ever changing climate. As temperatures go up and the CO2 in the environment increases, plants produce more pollen. The severity depends on where you live and the plant species that proliferate there according to William Anderegg, associate professor of biology at the University of Utah and the lead author of that 2021 study. His study found that Texas and the Midwest have taken the brunt of these increasing pollen hot spots. This new wave of allergens is nothing to sneeze about (sorry.. I had to say it!) Climate change is not in the future…but is here with every breath you take.
If the current trends continue, ragweed and grass pollen concentrations will significantly rise over the next 40 years, says research analyst Hannah Jaffee of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). One spokesperson from the AAFA, Neeta Ogden MD, states that allergy symptoms usually improve as we get older because our immune systems become less reactive with age. But climate change is robbing us of this natural protection. Unfortunately, some older adults are actually developing allergies for the first time in their lives. While others are suffering longer and more intense seasons. In many areas, high pollen counts can start in early March and go through late October (even through Halloween!). Microparticles of pollen can continue to linger into the winter season. Treating allergens can also keep you healthier when it comes to warding off viruses. That’s because if you have allergies, your airways are more reactive to viral illnesses. So suppressing flare-ups may improve your overall immunity keeping your defenses up to fight off colds and flu.
Here are some things you can do to help reduce your sneezing, coughing congested symptoms.
- Start treatment early: It’s easier to prevent your immune system from getting overwhelmed and overly aroused than it is to calm it down. So for the fall ragweed season, start treatment in August. The dates differ depending on what part of the country you live in. Consider starting with a nasal steroid spray. Over-the-counter nasal sprays include fluticasone (Flonase), triamcinolone (Nasacort) or budesonide (Rhinocort). These nasal sprays reduce nasal swelling and mucous production but can take a week to work so start early. Which one to choose? Some people find Flonase irritating because it contains alcohol so you can start with Nasacort. Anti-histamine nasal sprays are also available that treat itchy, runny nose symptoms and sneezing. These include prescription azelastine (Astelin, Astepro) and olopatadine (Patanase).
- Oral antihistamines are also effective. Most over-the-counter medications work well. They include loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra) which are both non-drowsy formulas. Cetirizine (Zyrtec) or levocetirizine (Xyzal) are sedating so they should be taken at night. Natural products that have antihistamine effects include Quercetin, Stinging Nettles and Vitamin C. Still suffering? Consider allergy shots or immunotherapy.
- Mask up if you are outdoors on high allergen days. Check the pollen counts daily on apps such as pollen.com, weatherbug.com and weather.com. These resources show counts and ratings for the day. If high, then try to shift outdoor activities indoors. Or you can avoid outside activities when pollen release is at its peak especially on windy and warm days. Those are 5-10AM and after 4 PM to dusk.
- Avoid indoor allergens too. The sheer load of allergens can make symptoms worse. Common indoor allergens include pollen, dust mites, dander and mold. Zip up box springs and mattresses with dust mite covers. Vacuum carpets frequently, and keep windows closed while setting up a HEPA air purifier if you are allergic to your pet. Make sure to get roof leaks fixed and keep the indoor humidity to 40% to reduce mold in your home.
Being aware of your allergens is the first step toward taking preventative measures. Speak to your practitioner or see an allergist for testing if you are unsure.
References: Migala, J. Allergies: The next wave. AARP Bulletin April 2022.
Extreme Allergies and Climate Change. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. aafa.org