Seasonal Allergies: Yes, They’re Getting Worse, and Here’s Why
Hotter temps and higher pollution may be making hay fever attacks more likely than ever, but here’s how you can defend yourself
You may see climate change as a distant menace, but it could be as close as your nose.
The nasal allergies that strike millions of us when the seasons change are growing more common, according to the American College of Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), which estimates that as many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children in the United States now suffer from seasonal sneezes and sniffles.
A cascade of recent scientific research suggests that rising temperatures and carbon dioxide pollution may be at least partly to blame. “Higher carbon dioxide levels seem to be making things worse and worse,” says allergist Kevin McGrath, MD, an ACAAI spokesperson, who is seeing “a lot more kids with nasal allergies” in his Wethersfield, Connecticut practice these days.
Seasonal allergic rhinitis — popularly known as “hay fever” since horse-and-buggy days — occurs when trees, grasses and weeds release pollen into the air, triggering an overreaction in the immune systems of the allergy-prone. Stuffy, itchy noses, watery eyes and other symptoms may follow, accompanied by a symphony of sneezes, any time from early spring to first freeze in the fall.
A longer, stronger pollen season
Your genes and local weather affect your risk of developing hay fever, but numerous studies show that climate change probably isn’t helping. Higher average temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are already making the pollen season longer, stronger and more widespread, according to many experts.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in 2014 that the pollen season for ragweed, a major summer and fall allergen, had lengthened by 10 to 27 days since 1995 due to warmer conditions in the central United States. and Canada. In the future, “many locations could experience longer allergy seasons and higher pollen counts as a result of climate change” declared the EPA report.
Several recent studies in the United States and Europe indicate CO2 and other greenhouse gases also boost the allergenic power of pollen in ragweed, birch trees and grasses. Scientists at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst estimated that grass pollen production could soar 200 percent in the next 100 years, posing a significant health hazard worldwide.
Pollen in new places
Global warming has also made more pollinating plants welcome in new territories. Flowers and trees that once bloomed only in southern states now flourish in the north, reports a study from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), a patient advocacy group, and the National Wildlife Federation.
Retirees and other sun-seekers sometimes bring old favorites like mulberry trees and Bermuda grass along when they move to the Sunbelt. In 2003, when AAFA started its annual “allergy capitals” list of the worst places to live with spring allergies, few southwestern cities appeared, says spokesman Mike Tringale. By 2015, 11 of these cities ranked in the top two-thirds, including such former respiratory refuges as Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona.
If that means moving is no longer a surefire defense against seasonal pollen, there are still plenty of ways to protect yourself and your family during the sneezing season.
Keeping pollen at arm’s length
Experts suggest these strategies for minimizing your exposure to this seasonal allergy inducer:
- Pay attention to pollen counts. Check in regularly with the National Allergy Bureau and your local weather forecast.
- Minimize exposure. Postpone yardwork, especially on hot, windy days, and wear a pollen mask if you must be outdoors for extended periods.
- Time your workouts. Very early mornings and evenings tend to be kindest to allergy sufferers, says McGrath. Cool, damp weather helps keep pollen under control (though it can encourage the growth of mold, another allergen).
- Rinse pollen off your shoes, glasses and your pet, if he’s been romping outside. Wash dusty clothes, and shower and shampoo before bedtime.
- Practice healthy housekeeping. Don’t hang linens outdoors in pollen season; use the dryer instead. Change your pillowcases often and change your pillows every two or three years. Vacuum regularly with a HEPA filter.
- Use the air-conditioning rather than opening the windows in your home and car, and remember to clean the filters.
- Garden with lower-pollen plants. Choose female trees and shrubs, which don’t pollinate, and showy flowers like tulips, roses, petunias and daylilies that relinquish their sticky pollen to bees and butterflies rather than dumping it into the air.
If over-the-counter antihistamines don’t keep symptoms in check, see your doctor for a referral to an allergist for testing and treatment.