Feb 17, 2012 5:38 PM
Thanks to a mild winter, spring allergy season got started nearly a month early in many parts of the U.S., and experts say that could mean prolonged misery for people who are sensitive to tree pollen.
"It's very unusual because it's so early," says Stanley M. Fineman, MD, who is president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
His office, the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic, has been logging local pollen counts for nearly 20 years. "We have not seen pollen counts this high, this early, as long as I can remember," he says.
It's the same story across much of the country.
"We're seeing it in the middle states like Maryland, southern Ohio, even some of the western states," Fineman says.
In Northern California, allergist Gregory W. Bensch, MD, started seeing high tree pollen counts in mid-January.
"It's definitely a month, month-and-a-half earlier than usual," says Bensch, who practices at the Allergy, Immunology, and Asthma Medical Group in Stockton, Calif.
He says, normally, his patients who suffer from spring allergies would start getting mild symptoms in February, with the real suffering -- swollen, itchy, red eyes; sneezing; runny noses -- setting in around March.
"I'm seeing those really miserable patients already. So it's definitely been a very early, atypical year for the allergy sufferers."
And many people are coming into doctors' offices confused by spring allergies that hit mid-winter, which is normally cold and flu season.
"They weren't quite sure: 'Is this allergies? Do I have a cold? What's going on?'" says Frank Virant, MD, an allergist at the Northwest Allergy and Asthma Center, in Seattle. "It was clear from looking at the nasal secretions under a microscope that it's allergies."
Bernard S. Zeffren, MD, says it's only the third time in his 16 years of practice in Orlando, Fla., that allergy season and cold and flu season have overlapped. "We're probably going to have a spread-out kind of year," he says.
Biologists say an early pollen season may also mean a long one, though that's more difficult to predict since the length of the season will depend on precipitation.
After the trees start blooming, rainfall determines how long they keep shedding pollen.
"There are some years that our pollen has come and gone very quickly because it's been warm and dry," says Kim Coder, PhD, a professor of tree biology at the University of Georgia, in Athens.
"When you have rainy, intermittent weather, that can prolong the tree pollen season because it lengthens the time the flowers are open and producing pollen," Coder tells WebMD.
Researchers say the early allergy season isn't a fluke. It may be part of a larger trend that's being shaped by climate change.
A 2010 study that looked at 26 years' worth of pollen counts for five allergens in northern Italy showed that as temperatures increased, pollen seasons stretched in that region by more than two weeks. Pollen counts were higher, too. Scientists saw about 25% more pollen in 2007 than they did in 1981. And there was evidence that more people were becoming sensitive to those allergens over time. It's happening in this country, too.
"We're seeing a very consistent change in how early plants flower in the spring," says Lewis Ziska, PhD, a research plant physiologist at the USDA's Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.
What's more, the warmer temperatures are affecting all plants, not just trees.
Ziska has been tracking ragweed, a plant that is usually a problem in the fall. In a study published last year, he found that ragweed seasons were getting longer in the U.S. and Canada, with northern regions seeing the biggest increases. In Minneapolis, for example, the ragweed season was about 16 days longer in 2009 than it was in 1995. In Saskatoon, Canada, it was nearly a month longer in 2009 than in 1995.
"We really need to kind of sit back, take notice of it, and say, 'This is something we need to pay attention to,'" Ziska says.
When possible, the best strategy is to try to avoid the pollen. That means staying indoors.
If you have to be outdoors, Bensch says it's smart to use a mask to protect your airway.
Tight-fitting glasses can help keep the pollen out of your eyes.
When inside, keep your doors and windows shut. Turning on the air conditioning can help keep the air clean, Bensch says.
"Central air systems work great to filter indoor air, but you've got to change the filters. Not enough people change their filters regularly enough," he says.