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Pollution, Weather, Climate Change All Affect Start, Severity of Allergy Season

April showers bring May flowers, but those blooms can bring sneezes and sniffles along with itchy, watery eyes.

As the region heads into the summer months, tree and grass pollen coupled with other irritants are ushering in suffering for those affected by allergies, according to local experts.

Tree and grass pollen are both at “high” levels in the Pittsburgh area this week, according to The Weather Channel’s daily pollen breakdown. On Tuesday, tree pollen even reached the “very high” tier.

For Dr. Thomas Mertz of Allergy and Asthma Associates of Pittsburgh, this year’s allergy season seems “fairly typical.” However, he has heard of more people experiencing allergy symptoms — and he’s been busy with appointments.

“It does seem like each year, more and more people are suffering,” Mertz said. “When I say it seems to be more severe, I am listening to what my patients tell me. By the time somebody gets to me, I’m not seeing the mild allergy sufferer. Most everybody I see is very severe. They’ve tried medicines and they are still suffering.”

A variety of factors can cause an uptick in allergic reactions, Mertz noted. Climate change has impacted the length of growing seasons, resulting in seasonal overlap — meaning that pollens that normally peak at separate times now are present at the same time.

Frequent rainfall, air pollution and extended growing seasons create a “perfect setup” for producing a lot of pollen, he said.

“Historically, in the spring you’d see tree pollen, and that would transition into grass, but right now, we are seeing high levels of both,” he said. “Because of, potentially, global warming, and your air quality in Pittsburgh is not the best, if you combine that with the rainfall, you have what we call a higher biomass of pollinators.”

Meteorologist Michael Brown from the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh noted that generally, rain can help wash away pollen from surfaces. However, the region hasn’t seen precipitation for more than a week and isn’t scheduled to have a measurable amount for several days.

“We do have a dry stretch. It hasn’t rained in nine days and we might hit 14 or 15 days, which is longer than typical in this part of the country,” Brown said. “It’s going to be dry definitely through Friday and probably dry through the weekend, and into the start of next week as well.”

Pollen schedule

Allergist Dr. Russell Traister of AHN West Penn Hospital explained that generally, pollen-type peaks follow a specific path through the seasons.

“Springtime is going to definitely be tree pollen, and as we get to later spring and summer, we get grass pollen exposure,” Traister said. “In August, we get the higher weed pollen counts.”

Traister often is able to predict what type of seasonal irritants impact a patient most by asking them what time of year their symptoms tend to flare.

“A lot of times when I talk to patients, I ask them what seasons they are the worst, and they say spring and fall, so I know they are going to have tree and weed pollen allergies,” he said.

Tree pollen may have emerged a bit earlier this year, he said, but when it comes to the period of warm weather that took hold of the region in February, indoor allergens were more likely the culprit for any added irritation.

“I had a lot of people complaining about thinking that their allergies were acting up earlier in February when none of the tree pollen was out,” he said. “One of the hypotheses we had was that there tended to be more indoor humidity and that people might be having more indoor allergies. That includes indoor/outdoor mold and things like dust mites.”

Pollution’s impact

The presence of air pollution in the atmosphere can exacerbate allergy symptoms, Mertz explained.

Diesel exhaust particles, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide can add to the aggravation, and allergens such as pollen can bind to pollution at the microscopic level. Added carbon dioxide along with more rain also can cause more plant growth.

“If you inhale pollen by itself, it causes inflammation,” he said. “If you inhale a pollen that is stuck to a piece of pollution, you can have a synergistic effect of more inflammation.”

One trick to keep allergy symptoms lower while working outside is to wear a mask, of the same sort that used to mitigate covid exposure, Mertz said.

“The one good thing about the pandemic, with masks, is if you are allergic, you don’t breathe all the pollen in,” he said. “If it’s not too overtly hot, I have actually had people do better with masks when they work in the yard.”

Source: Trib Live