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‘Extreme’ pollen counts, climate change fuel Pa. allergy misery

  • By Roger DuPuis/WVIA News
Sure they're pretty, but flowers — as well as trees and grasses — release huge amounts of pollen, which isn't great news for pollen-allergy sufferers. For asthmatic kids, these allergies may further aggravate symptoms such as wheezing.

 File photo

Sure they're pretty, but flowers — as well as trees and grasses — release huge amounts of pollen, which isn't great news for pollen-allergy sufferers. For asthmatic kids, these allergies may further aggravate symptoms such as wheezing.

It’s not just in your head.

If it seems like spring allergies are hitting more people harder and earlier, that’s because they are.

“We are definitely hearing this from a lot of patients,” said Geisinger allergist/immunologist Dr. Neil Baman.

He and other experts also believe climate change is a key factor leading to the increased misery.

“If you’re having longer and warmer, spring, summer and fall seasons, you’re going to have higher pollen counts as a result of that,” Baman added.

We have indeed been experiencing warmer seasons.

As the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences pointed out in March of 2023, much of eastern Pennsylvania was already experiencing above-average temperatures, a trend that continues this year. The Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University found that this March saw unusual warmth across the entire Northeast.

The result? As PSU’s research points out, the warmer temperatures affect when trees and plants blossom.

That is bad news for allergy sufferers.

“In this season, particularly in the last one to three weeks, the pollen counts have been slowly rising to the point where the majority of days now, we have fairly high pollen counts out there,” Baman said.

“So even if there’s a slight increase in the average high temperature of the day, you will have likely increase with that correlates with higher pollen counts,” Baman said.

‘Extreme’ pollen counts seen

In fact, those counts have pushed into the extreme range.

While based in Center City Philadelphia, The Asthma Center offers real-time data on pollen counts over a wide area, including Northeastern Pennsylvania.

A recent check of the center’s website showed extreme levels of tree and grass pollen in our region, as well as high levels of mold spores.

As center director Dr. Marc Goldstein points out, airborne allergens can travel substantial distances. That’s also why his facility’s sensor equipment in Philadelphia can extrapolate to analyze pollen levels in our region.

“The pollens that people are sensitized to and causing the symptoms of allergy right now are windborne. And so the source of a pollen grain can be may be 200 to 300 miles away from where actually someone experiences it,” Goldstein said. “So for instance, if you went offshore in the ocean and did a pollen sample 250 miles off shore, you’re going to be able to detect pollen grain from coastal plant material.”

Like Baman, Goldstein noted that warmer temperatures have been accompanied by more people experiencing early and intense allergy symptoms.

“In the last week of February and into March we had many days above 50 degrees. This kind of thing stimulates plant production. And so, with plant production, there’s pollen production,” Goldstein said.

Data recorded over the past 30 years shows that pollen seasons have gradually started earlier and lasted longer, he added, with trees that typically pollinated in mid-to-late March blossoming sooner.

“This year we saw tree pollen the first time we opened up our station, the first week in March,” Goldstein said.

Those pollens also are more powerful.

“There’s some data that would suggest that the allergenicity of pollen grains in and of themselves, may be more potent as a result of these kinds of climate changes,” he said.

Deciding when to seek treatment

With allergies, some people choose to suffer and wait out the season, or rely on over-the-counter medications, rather than seek medical help.

Is that the right approach? For some people, perhaps.

“If your quality of life is not overly impacted, then they may not need to seek help from their doctor,” Baman acknowledged.

If allergies are affecting your quality of life — school, work, outdoor activities — or if you want to find lasting relief from the yearly suffering, then it makes sense to seek medical assistance, he explained.

“When you go see your primary care practitioner or perhaps an allergist or immunologist, they can identify exactly what you’re allergic to, so you can prepare better for it, whether it’s this year or next year,” Baman said.

When are allergies not allergies?

With excessive pollen counts come the typical allergy symptoms that people experience — nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, sometimes drip, post nasal drip, phlegm in the throat, in addition to sometimes itchy and teary eyes.

But the symptoms and discomfort some people experience during this season may not necessarily be the result of allergies.

That may seem like an academic distinction, but it’s relevant to how sufferers are treated and find relief.

An estimated 30% of the population has allergies to those pollens that are the driving force behind the symptoms a lot of people are experiencing now, Goldstein said.

Other people who have similar symptoms that mimic allergies, he said, but the issues result from abrupt changes in temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, as well as pollutants in the air that stimulate the production of mucus and produce congestion in the nose, he added.

“An individual probably wouldn’t be able to differentiate whether they’re having allergies or what we call non-allergic congestion syndromes really is through testing,” Goldstein said.

Those individuals likely wouldn’t respond to the same injections that might be effective for someone who is actually allergic to pollens, “and this leads to differences in treatment,” he said.

Advice for sufferers

The best way to prepare for spring allergies is to understand your personal triggers, start medications, monitor pollen levels and consider alternative treatments, Baman said.

Various medications that will help you through allergy season: antihistamines, decongestants, steroidal nasal sprays and eye drops.

“All of these medications can be used together or separately to reduce symptoms,” he said.

As well, cleanliness counts.

“When your hands are dirty, you wash them. This allergy season, consider doing the same for your nose,” Baman said.

“Tools like neti pots and sinus rinses can flush out the pollens that are stuck in your nose, irritating your sinuses,” he added, with a caution: be sure to carefully follow the instructions on a neti pot or sinus rinse to avoid discomfort and potentially dangerous side effects.

“If you use a neti pot, make sure that you’re using purified or distilled water. Using tap water increases the risk of life-threatening infections,” Baman said.

Both Baman and Goldstein said it is important for those with allergic symptoms to keep track of pollen counts.

“We do an email broadcast each morning, seven days a week between March through November. So people can find out what the pollen is that particular day and get a sense of how that day’s activities should plan whether it’s a bad day, or it’s a light day in terms of pollen and what the weather is going to be like,” Goldstein said.

Environmental choices

Armed with that information, patients can make informed decisions about their activities. Baman’s recommendations include:

  • Be careful about opening windows in your house and in your car.
  • When you come home at the end of the day, change into different clothes to avoid tracking pollen into your house.
  • Before you go to bed, make sure to take a shower to wash off the pollen from the day.
  • Thoroughly vacuum and clean your house to lower indoor pollen levels.
  • Clean or change your air filters to make sure they aren’t full of pollen.
  • When you spend time outside, consider wearing sunglasses to stop pollen from getting into your eyes.
  • If you’re doing something that would make you come in contact with a lot of pollen — like gardening or mowing the grass — wearing a special filter mask can help keep pollen out of your lungs.
  • Wear gloves when handling things that may have pollen on them.

Broad and growing impact

Whatever your experience, know that you are not alone and help is available.

Baman estimates that the vast majority of allergy sufferers see symptoms before the age of 20, but adds that they can develop much later.

“You have to kind of keep in mind our, our bodies are always changing,” he said.

Baman practices at Geisinger Scenery Park, State College, but he said that Geisinger’s allergists are encountering similar issues and caseloads across the system, whether in Williamsport, Danville or Wilkes-Barre.

“We are seeing an increase in newer patients who are suddenly experiencing symptoms that they may not have experienced in the past, or perhaps their symptoms are worse than what they thought in the past and they would like better treatment options,” Baman said.

“We do see patients suffering out there, and they need to know it’s okay to seek help.”

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