Why seasonal allergies are worse this year
Does it seem like you’re sniffling and sneezing more than ever? Well, it’s not all in your head. Here’s why — and what you can do about it.
If it feels like your seasonal allergies have turned into every-season allergies, you’re not imagining things. But it’s unlikely that your allergies are getting worse (at least, not technically). Allergy seasons have gotten longer and stronger over time.
The reason? Climate change. Quite simply, warmer temperatures mean a longer growing season for pollen-producing plants. Pollen season now begin about 3 weeks earlier and lasts roughly 1 week longer, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study looked at data collected between 1990 and 2018 from 60 pollen stations in the U.S. and Canada. It found a 21% increase in airborne pollen. That’s a significant uptick, and it explains why you might be sneezier and itchier now than you were years ago.
The study also found that some areas of the U.S. have been hit especially hard. These include Texas and the Midwest. But temperatures are up everywhere. Globally, the past 7 years have been the warmest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
In addition to a shorter frost season, rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) can cause certain plants to make more pollen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, a ragweed plant today may make twice as much pollen as it did in the 1800s, when CO2 levels were lower.
Fortunately, there are ways you can manage your allergy symptoms. That includes knowing which medications to take, and when. And avoiding pesky pollen in the first place.
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Identify and avoid your triggers
If you’re no newbie to seasonal allergies, you probably have a good idea about what sends your allergies into overdrive. But if your seasonal allergies are new or seem to be changing, it can be helpful to get tested to figure out exactly what allergen is making you miserable. (Yes, allergies can start at any age.)
Allergists use clinically validated tests to see what you’re reacting to. A skin scratch or prick test or a blood antibody test can help pinpoint your biggest allergy offenders. That can help rule out other triggers, such as mold allergens. And it can help you anticipate when your allergy symptoms will strike.
“Certain types of pollen tend to dominate certain times of the year,” says Joshua Davidson, MD. He’s an allergist and immunologist with Optum in Redondo Beach, California. “For example, on average, tree pollen levels tend to rise in the late winter or spring, depending on the part of the country you live in.” Ragweed, on the other hand, is a late bloomer. It hits us in the fall.
If you can name the kind of pollen that’s making your head ache, you can be better armed to steer clear of it.
That said, avoiding all pollen is impossible (unless you live in a bubble). But there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure. Here are some tips to try:
- Stay in the house when possible on windy days or dry days, when the pollen count is high. Check your area’s latest pollen counts on sites such as the National Allergy Bureau.
- Keep your windows closed and run the air conditioner with a filter. You can also use an indoor air purifier with a HEPA filter.
- Wear a face mask when you go outside to avoid breathing in pollen particles. Many people with allergies said they had fewer symptoms while wearing masks during the pandemic. Just be sure to wash the mask between uses.
- Skip mowing the grass, raking leaves, weeding or doing other lawn maintenance, if you can. (Need different ways to stay active indoors? We have 30 moves for you to try.)
- Spending time outdoors? Take a shower before going to bed to wash off any pollen from your hair or skin. Washing your bedding once a week can also be beneficial, Dr. Davidson says.
Know your allergy treatment options
Whether you have an allergy to pollen from trees, grass or weeds, the basic principle is the same. When you’re exposed to that pollen, your body identifies it as a foreign invader. That creates an immune system response. That’s what prompts those runny noses, swollen sinuses and sneezing fits.
Allergy treatments can target that immune response. Or they can help relieve symptoms. Some options are available over the counter or by prescription. Those medications include:
- Antihistamines. These are oral medications such as loratadine (Claritin®), fexofenadine (Allegra®) and cetirizine (Zyrtec®). They block histamine, the symptom-causing chemical released by your immune system that’s responsible for your sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes.
- Oral decongestants. Oral decongestants such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed®, Afrinol®) can ease stuffy noses and help you breathe a little better. The benefit is that they work quickly. But their effect is temporary.
- Nasal decongestants. Decongestants also come in nasal spray forms, such as oxymetazoline (Afrin®). You should use nasal decongestants for only a few days in a row. Longer than that and they can cause a rebound effect that makes your stuffiness worse. Always follow the usage instructions, unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
- Combination medications. Some allergy medications combine an antihistamine and a decongestant. Examples include loratadine-pseudoephedrine (Claritin-D®) and fexofenadine-pseudoephedrine (Allegra-D®). You’ll typically find these behind the pharmacy counter.
- Steroid nasal sprays. Oral antihistamines or decongestants aren’t doing the trick? There are also steroid-based nasal sprays for some allergy symptoms. They reduce inflammation in the nose. Options include fluticasone (Flonase®), mometasone (Nasonex®) and triamcinolone (Nasacort®). Typically, these medications are taken once a day. And it can take several days to see an effect, so it’s best to start them before your allergies ramp up. “They can be highly useful, particularly during more difficult allergy periods,” Dr. Davidson says.
- Nasal saline and neti pots. You can also use a nasal rinse such as a neti pot or NeilMed® Sinus Rinse™ to flush out your sinuses. It can help keep your nasal passages moist and clear out mucus, bacteria and allergens from your nose.
If your allergies won’t quit, you may need to call in reinforcements. Dr. Davidson recommends talking to an allergist about allergy shots or sublingual tablets. Both work in a way that’s similar to a vaccine. You’re exposed to a little bit of the offending allergen. That helps your body develop resistance or immunity to it.
Recommended reading: Super easy ways to save on your allergy medicine.
The bottom line: Don’t suffer in silence
There is no reason to wait to talk to a doctor about your allergies. “I highly recommend being proactive about the prevention of allergies,” Dr. Davidson says. “That can help you navigate allergy season far more successfully.”
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, most allergy medications work best when you start them before pollen season starts. Keep in mind: That might be sooner than you’re used to, thanks to our changing climate.
So don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider to find relief — and plan ahead. Playing offense may be the best way to nip allergies in the bud. And if your care plan involves prescription medication, don’t let savings slip by either. Download our mobile app to easily find and share coupons.
Study on climate change and pollen season: PNAS (2021). “Anthropogenic climate change is worsening North American pollen seasons”
Data on the warmest years on record: World Meteorological Organization
Pollen, climate change and your health: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Background on pollen allergies: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America