March 5, 2013 -- Spring allergy season is again off to an early start in many parts of the country, and doctors say there are some signs it may be even more miserable than usual this year.
Last year was the fourth warmest winter on record, with consistently mild temperatures. That led to record-breaking pollen counts that struck about a month earlier than normal in some places.
But this year, many areas got a false spring. Temperatures rose briefly and then dipped again. The swings caused pollen levels to rise, then fall, then rise again.
That pattern of pollen release sets people with allergies up for something called "the priming effect," says Stanley M. Fineman, MD, an Atlanta-based allergist and past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
"When patients are exposed, then the pollen goes away for a while, there's a weather change or whatever, then they are re-exposed to that pollen, they can have an even more significant effect because their system is primed to respond," Fineman says.
"It results in patients having a lot more difficulty with significantly worse symptoms" that may be tougher to get under control, he says.
Some parts of the South and East Coast began logging high tree pollen counts in January. Then pollen levels dropped in early February before climbing again by the end of the month. Plenty of allergy-prone people were caught unprepared.
"The typical symptoms are congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, watery eyes, sore throat, itchy throat, headaches, itchy ears," not to mention all the patients who have asthma that's triggered by allergies, says Sheila Amar, MD. "It's pretty miserable."
Blame Climate Change
The bad news is that these amped-up spring allergy seasons probably aren't flukes. Scientists say that as climate change accelerates, so will allergies.
"Springs are coming earlier," says Jake Weltzin, PhD, executive director of the USA National Phenology Network, a government project to track the effects of climate change on the habits of plants and animals.
As the weather gets warmer earlier in the year, more plants and trees start to bloom at the same time, creating "a pollen bomb," Weltzin says.
What's more, experiments show that plants exposed to higher levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide make more pollen. The pollen they make also has higher levels of proteins that trigger allergies, which makes it more potent.
Beat Allergy Symptoms
Doctors say the best time to treat allergies is before they flare up.
"Once your immune system is revved up and reacting to the allergens, it's always harder to get it under control," Amar says. "In general, being proactive is a much better approach."
Some prescription nasal sprays take weeks to build up in the nose, Amar says, so patients should try to anticipate their symptoms.
That can be tough to do when winter weather is unpredictable. If allergies already have you in their grips, some common-sense steps can cut the misery:
- On higher-pollen-count days, avoid going outside, especially in the morning when pollen levels are highest. If you have to go out, take your allergy medications with you.
- Keep windows and doors closed. Run the air conditioner instead.
- Wear a mask if you have to work outdoors.
- Take a shower at the end of the day to wash sticky pollen grains from your hair. That can help you get a better night's sleep.
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