One of the most common diseases in the United States affecting about 25 million Americans is seasonal allergic rhinitis. 15% of children suffer the symptoms of allergic rhinitis or “hay fever” — sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, and itching of the eyes, nose, and roof of the mouth — according to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America.
In the spring, it’s tree pollens that are responsible for a predominance of itching and sneezing. Tree pollens are tiny enough to be carried by the wind for miles, finally entering our eyes and noses and lungs and making many of us miserable every spring.
Fall allergies are primarily due to weed pollens like ragweed, which AAFA calls “the worst offender”:
Ragweed allergy is the most common weed pollen allergy. One ragweed plant can produce billions of light, dry pollen grains, which can then travel for miles.
Seasonal allergy sufferers have noticed that the timing of their symptoms is starting earlier in the spring and lasting longer in the fall. The reason why is clearly stated in the Fourth National Climate Assessment:
The frequency and severity of allergic illnesses, including asthma and hay fever, are likely to increase as a result of a changing climate. Earlier spring arrival, warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation, and higher carbon dioxide concentrations can increase exposure to airborne pollen allergens.
Warmer temperatures are increasing the duration of the pollen season, and rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere resulting from humankind’s reliance on burning fossil fuels to run things on Earth are leading to enhanced plant growth and pollen production. As a result, climate change leads to increased allergic rhinitis symptoms in seasonal sufferers, which, in turn, can trigger acute asthma exacerbations for those with reactive airways.
While climate change is a global phenomenon, pollen counts vary from region to region based on latitude, vegetation, and local climate and weather conditions. For allergy sufferers, some places are more challenging to live in than others. Out of 100 cities in the United States, Scranton, Pennsylvania tops AAFA’s 2021 Allergy Capitals list as the most challenging place to live with seasonal allergies. The city earned that dubious distinction based on its higher than average spring and fall pollen counts and use of allergy medications, and the fact that fewer board-certified allergists work there. Pittsburgh, Don Hopey discovered, ranks #5:
Average springtime temperatures in Pittsburgh have risen 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit, while fall temperatures are up 2 degrees on average. That’s caused the average growing season — that is the number of consecutive days the temperature is above freezing — to stretch by 18 days.
The link between longer, warmer growing seasons and plant pollen production is strengthened by a study published in the February 2021 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science online journal that found pollen concentrations had increased by 20% and the changing climate is the primary cause.
The study’s lead author told Hopey there is strong statistical evidence linking warmer temperatures, pollen counts, and seasonal allergies:
Mr. Anderegg said warmer temperatures not only result in a longer growing season but also cause plants to produce more flowers, which can lead to more pollen production. The study concluded that “ climate-driven pollen trends are likely to further exacerbate respiratory health impacts in coming decades.”
Mr. Anderegg said the findings provide added urgency to efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause a warming world.
“This is not a problem that is far away,” he said. “It’s right here in our backyards every spring.”
AAFA recommends taking the following actions to prevent the worst misery allergies can bring when pollen levels are high:
• Check pollen counts daily, and plan outdoor activities on days when pollen counts are lower.
• Keep windows closed.
• If possible, use central air conditioning with a CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® HVAC filter.
• Wear sunglasses and a hat or other hair covering when outdoors.
• If cutting grass, working with plants, or raking leaves, wear an N95-rated mask, gloves and sunglasses/goggles.
• Take a shower and shampoo your hair before going to bed.
• Change and wash clothes after outdoor activities.
• Dry laundry in a clothes dryer or on an indoor rack, not on an outdoor line.
• Wipe pets off with a towel before they enter your home.
• Remove your shoes before entering your home.
• Wash bedding in hot, soapy water once a week.
• Use a nasal rinse to flush out inhaled pollen.
Check daily pollen counts in your neck of the woods at the National Allergy Bureau or on your favorite weather app. Checking your local air quality index (AQI) at Airnow.gov doesn’t hurt either since harmful air pollution also gets worse as the world warms.
Read more on The PediaBlog about climate change and the health impacts already being felt by it here.
(Google Images / Climate Central)
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