If your seasonal allergies seem to be worse or lasting longer than ever, it's not all in your imagination. Research that shows pollen seasons have been getting longer over the past few decades with more pollen and, in some cases, "more potent pollen," says Perry E. Sheffield, MD, MPH, Mount Sinai associate professor of environmental medicine and public health — and it appears that it'll only get worse from here on out.
A recent study published in Nature Communications conducted by the University of Michigan found that pollen allergy season could start up to 40 days earlier and last 19 days longer by the year 2100 due to climate change. Temperature and rain changes alone would increase annual United States pollen emissions by up to 40 percent, according to the study's climate scientists, and factoring in carbon-dioxide emissions could cause a 250 percent increase in annual pollen emissions.
Exact pollen changes will differ depending on the types of plants and where you live, PhD candidate and lead author Yingxiao Zhang told NBC News. However, the study projects that the timing of different plant pollens (tree pollens in the spring, grass pollens in the summer, and weed pollens in the fall) could create new overlap, leading to higher pollen concentrations.
Why does climate change affect pollen, exactly? Rising temperatures, precipitation, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere all impact plants' pollen emissions, Zhang says. Generally speaking, CO2 acts like a fertilizer for plants, making them grow faster or bigger. And "the CO2 fertilization effect can mean the plant makes more pollen," Dr. Sheffield explains to POPSUGAR. Plus, Tania Mucci-Elliott, MD, an allergist at NYU Langone Health, told POPSUGAR last year that warmer temperatures "and above-average rainfall mean earlier tree budding and more pollen."
The takeaway? Longer and more intense pollen seasons are expected to exacerbate both pollen allergies and asthma, according to the Nature Communications study. Dr. Sheffield echoes that sentiment, stressing that if you don't already know how to manage your allergies, it's time to start figuring out what works for you, whether that's avoiding pollen altogether or taking medication to help control your symptoms.
How to Deal With a Longer Allergy Season
Common pollen allergy symptoms include runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, sore throat, and itchy rashes, according to both Lakiea Wright, MD, MPH, board-certified allergist and associate physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Purvi Parikh, MD, national spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network. Here are their tips to help mitigate your symptoms during a prolonged allergy season, whether you're allergic to pollen or have asthma that's triggered by pollen.
- Keep track of pollen counts. Try to minimize time outdoors when pollen counts are high, especially the early hours of the morning, when both doctors say pollen counts are highest. (You can check pollen levels on most weather websites or apps, or on Pollen.com)
- Keep your windows closed in the car and at home to avoid letting in pollen.
- Remove outdoor clothing (pollen can stick to it!) once you're indoors.
- Take a shower to remove pollen from your body, as it can stick to your hair and eyelashes, too.
- Filtered masks may help to reduce exposure to small particles like pollens.
- If you need medication, Dr. Parikh says over-the-counter antihistamine or Flonase may help, but some people may require prescriptions. She suggests you start your preventative or "controller" medications earlier in the season.
Dr. Wright notes that it's important for people with asthma to talk to their doctor to ensure they're on the appropriate medication, especially if they're triggered by pollen. Additionally, she says some people with seasonal allergies are allergic to more than one allergen, so consider getting tested to identify those allergens and come up with a treatment plan.