Metro Atlanta’s pollen count hit its highest level in six years on April 5, and experts say allergy sufferers likely won’t get relief anytime soon.
That news comes as no surprise to the many Cowetans who sniffle, sneeze and cough their way through springtime each year. They currently have trees like birch, pine and oak to thank for their misery, but it won’t be long until grasses and weeds start contributing.
“With so many things blooming it’s not going away any time soon – the mix of species will just change,” said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist for the University of Georgia.
Pollen is released to allow plants to reproduce. Insects pollinate plants by carrying and transferring larger pollens, but microscopic pollens – often the very ones responsible for allergy symptoms – are picked up and distributed by spring breezes.
These days, an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies, and climate change is making it worse, researchers say.
“You already have higher temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels [in cities]. That in itself is a harbinger of things to come," said Lewis Ziska, Ph.D., a weed ecologist at the Agriculture Research Service division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Spring appears to be coming earlier, and this is affecting the tree pollen, which is a main source of spring hay fever."
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, three main factors fuel increases in allergens. Carbon dioxide – the heat-trapping gas responsible for global warming – increases the growth rate of many plants as well as the amount and potency of pollen.
Rising temperatures extend the growing season and the duration of allergy season. And an extended spring season alters the amounts of blooms and fungal spores that are known to exacerbate allergy symptoms, according to the organization’s website.
"The influence of climate change on plant behavior exacerbates or adds an additional factor to the number of people suffering from allergy and asthma," said Ziska, adding that the intersection of climate change and health is something that epidemiologists are starting to closely analyze.
Meanwhile, health officials recommend several steps that may help relieve seasonal allergies:
• Keep track of the daily pollen count and limit time outdoors when it’s high.
• Take antihistamines and other medications recommended by your doctor.
• Wear a mask outdoors.
• Keep car and house windows closed, and run the air conditioner instead.
• Change or clean air filters regularly.
• Shower before going to bed. Pollen can settle your hair and onto clothes and skin, so a shower will keep you from breathing in pollen all night.
• Wash off indoor pets’ paws and wipe down their fur with a damp cloth or towel if they’ve been outdoors. Pets can easily track pollen into your home, leaving it on your carpets and furniture.
• Avoid outdoor activities until early evening, as pollen counts tend to be highest in the mornings.