Why Allergy Season Is Longer and Stronger This Year

Experts say climate change is causing more pollen to be released into the air. Ocean Prod/Getty Images

Experts say allergy seasons are getting stronger and longer.They say part of the reason is that climate change is putting more polle…

Experts say climate change is causing more pollen to be released into the air. Ocean Prod/Getty Images
  • Experts say allergy seasons are getting stronger and longer.
  • They say part of the reason is that climate change is putting more pollens into the air.
  • They advise people with allergies to wear sunglasses when outside, shower after being outdoors, and keep windows closed when indoors.

Allergy season is getting longer and there’s more pollen in the air.

That’s bad news for people with seasonal allergies, and the situation is unlikely to improve until the climate stops warming, experts say.

A recent study found that pollen season increased by 20 days annually between 1990 and 2018, while pollen concentrations in North America increased 21 percent over the same time period.

The pollen in the air may also be increasingly potent and thus more allergenic, the study found.

Climate change “is the dominant driver of changes in pollen season length and a significant contributor to increasing pollen concentrations,” the study authors wrote. “Our results indicate that human-caused climate change has already worsened North American pollen seasons, and climate-driven pollen trends are likely to further exacerbate respiratory health impacts in coming decades.”

Dr. Stanley M. Fineman, an allergist and immunologist at Atlanta Allergy & Asthma and past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), told Healthline that the findings reflect his experience of tracking pollen counts and treating people during 40 years of practice in Georgia.

“This is clearly a more severe allergy season than we’ve had in a long time,” said Fineman. “We’re seeing a lot of patients complaining of more symptoms and not being able to deal with them with the over-the-counter medications available. That’s due to it getting warmer earlier and a longer and more potent pollen season.”

Climate and COVID-19

Dr. Anna H. Nowak-Wegrzyn, a pediatric allergist at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone in New York, said climate change could also introduce new pollen species regionally as plants adapt to higher temperatures.

Interestingly, Nowak-Wegrzyn said that the increase in climate-driven changes to pollen season may have been offset somewhat in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led people to spend more time indoors, wear masks outdoors, and wash their hands more frequently — all of which can help limit contact with airborne allergens.

“For allergens as well as pathogens, exposure is important,” Nowak-Wegrzyn told Healthline.

“There is fluctuation — not every season is worse than the last one,” she added. “But, in general, we’re seeing more patients with worse symptoms, particularly in the pediatric population.”

The COVID-19 precautions taken in 2020 and 2021 may have offered a temporary reprieve from the worsening allergy season, but the overall trend is not encouraging, said Nowak-Wegrzyn.

“I’m worried about next year,” when lower COVID-19 cases may lead to less mask wearing and handwashing and more outdoor activity, she said.

What you can do

Learning what pollens you’re allergic to and checking daily pollen counts remain among the best first steps to limiting exposure to seasonal allergens, according to the ACAAI.

Windy days with high pollen counts “are probably not a great time to schedule a hike or go to the park,” said Nowak-Wegrzyn, who also noted that pollen counts tend to be worst in the morning.

Other preventive steps recommended by the ACAAI include keeping windows closed during pollen season, showering after spending time outdoors, and wearing sunglasses and a hat to keep pollen out of your hair and eyes.

Continuing to wear a mask outdoors during pollen season also can limit exposure, Fineman said.

“Some of my patients were wearing masks well before COVID,” he noted.

Getting a head start with your allergy medication also can help, said Dr. Luz S. Fonacier, current ACAAI president and an infectious disease allergy and immunologist specialist at NYU Langone Hospital — Long Island.

“If you know it’s likely that your allergy symptoms will arrive earlier in the spring or fall season, start taking your medications sooner,” she told Healthline. “If you begin your medications 2 to 3 weeks before your symptoms begin in earnest, chances are your suffering will be lessened.”

You can also talk with your doctor to see if allergy immunotherapy, such as allergy shots, is a good option for you.