Climate Change Is Making Seasonal Allergies Worse

Itchy eyes, drippy nose, congestion, sneezing, feeling woozy and tired — if you’re one of the millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, these symptoms will plague you from about April to as late as October.

yellow flowers in vase

Most seasonal allergies are caused by a proliferation of pollen that starts to circulate in early spring; and then ragweed that can reach its peak up until the end of fall.

During allergy season, you hear lots of people complain that their allergies started earlier than usual, seemed to drag on forever, and are just generally more intense. Sure, some of us may exaggerate our symptoms, but these complaints actually do have a basis in reality.

Experts agree that allergy season has been starting earlier and lasting longer over the past couple of years. Symptoms have intensified as well, and more people than ever — some of whom have no past history of allergies — are now showing symptoms during allergy season.

The culprit? Climate change.

The culprit? Climate change.

According to Penn Medicine News, the timetable for seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) has been increasing in duration over the past few years. Warmer weather in particular is a major factor, as higher temperatures extend the life of the plants, trees and grasses that cause allergy symptoms. In other words, spring and summer are hotter and last longer, first frost is delayed, and the growing cycles of those pesky allergy-causing plants lasts longer than they once did.

As cited by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, between 1995 and 2011 pollen season increased by 11 to 27 days, a trend that has continued to this year. In addition to pollen, climate change increases mold and poison ivy, both of which exacerbate asthma and allergy attacks. CO2 emission and pollution in general contribute to a rise in asthma rates, which can also worsen allergy symptoms.

But it’s not just current allergy sufferers who are impacted by climate change — people who have never before experienced seasonal allergies are now showing symptoms. According to the CDC, the number of adults with hay fever has increased from 17.6 million in 2012 to 20 million today.

Dr. Michael Phillips, director of allergy programs at Penn Medicine, has some theories about why this is. The first is simply that warmer conditions allow plants to grow in regions where they previously would not have been able to thrive. This change exposes people to plant species they had not encountered before.

“Some plants don’t grow very well in cold climates,” Phillips said. “But now that it’s getting warmer, we are seeing plants in Philadelphia that never used to grow this far north. And since we haven’t been exposed to these plants before, they can be potent allergens.”

Higher levels of CO2 cause plants to grow for longer durations and increase the amount and potency of pollen released into the air. As an example, Dr. Phillips said that if you compared two identical ragweed plants — one that grew near a polluted area and one that grew 20-30 miles away — you’d find that the one growing in a polluted area would produce double the amount of pollen.

All of these findings are quite upsetting, especially if you suffer from severe allergies that disrupt your everyday life. This dilemma is just another reason why need to do our utmost to put a halt to the damage climate change is causing. Living a more sustainable lifestyle should be a top priority for us all. Likewise, we all should do our part by urging congressional representatives to support eco-friendly policies.

Nonetheless, it sounds like we are all going to have to live with a more intense and longer allergy season for the foreseeable future. But the good news is that there are actions you can take to reduce at least some of your symptoms.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America recommends checking the Air Quality Index published by the EPA before leaving your house if you suffer from seasonal allergies. This information will help you know how to prepare and what medication to have on hand to reduce symptoms.

It is also recommended that you change your clothes promptly if you’ve been outside during peak allergy days. Air cleaning devices used at home can help, and it’s useful to keep windows closed so pollen doesn’t get in. Check with your doctor about medication, allergy shots or other tips related to your specific allergy profile.

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