Sneezing? Sniffling? Climate change means U.S. allergy seasons last a month longer than in 1990 and have 21% more pollen

By Laurel Swanz
Kentucky Health News

With allergy season in full swing in Kentucky, those suffering from nasal allergies and asthma may feel as though the pollen gets worse every year.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says there is some truth to this – and climate change, which is causing warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons and decreased air quality, is to blame.

Pollen season starts earlier and lasts longer than in previous years, according to research led by William Anderegg of the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Andregg’s research found that pollen seasons “start 20 days earlier, are 10 days longer, and feature 21% more pollen than in 1990.”

Kentucky has had a longer pollen seson this year because it had an unseasonably warm February, putting parts of the state in bloom for months, according to Lexington’s WKYT-TV.

“The strong link between warmer weather and pollen seasons provides a crystal-clear example of how climate change is already affecting peoples’ health in the U.S.,” Anderegg said in a report for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

According to Anderegg’s research, the warming temperatures confuse plants’ internal timing, or phenology, causing them to start producing pollen earlier in the year.

That means people who suffer from seasonal allergies and asthma and their health-care providers must start preparing sooner, as many treatments take varying amounts of time before becoming effective.

For example, immunotherapies to treat allergies through dissolving tablets or shots can take anywhere from 12 weeks to years to become effective, so knowing when allergy season is coming is essential to the timing and effectiveness of these treatments.

The Mayo Clinic offers several strategies to relieve seasonal allergies before resorting to allergy shots, including staying indoors when pollen counts are high to reduce exposure and using over-the-counter remedies such as antihistamines, decongestants and nasal irrigation.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reports that allergies and asthma often go hand in hand. And because climate change leads to heightened symptoms of both conditions, people need to know what they’re dealing with and how to treat it.

“What many people don’t realize is that the same things that trigger your seasonal ‘hay fever’ symptoms – things like pollen, dust mites, mold and pet dander – can also cause asthma symptoms,” allergist Kathleen May said in an ACAAI news release. “If you have allergies, and you are wheezing or coughing, an allergist can determine if you also have asthma. Allergists are specialists at treating asthma and can put together a treatment plan to help you deal with both conditions.”

Anderegg’s research found that climate change’s contribution to increasing pollen counts is only rising.

“Climate change isn’t something far away and in the future. It’s already here in every spring breath we, and increasing human misery,” Anderegg said in the report. “The biggest question is — are we up to the challenge of tackling it?”

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