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How Global Warming Affects Your Spring Allergies

Photo: Jeremy Hogan/Getty Images

If you live in the Northeast, you know spring is typically a nonstop roller coaster of deceivingly nice weather, surprise snowstorms, and magical 40-degree, five-hour temperature transitions. And at the other end of all that madness? Allergy season.

If you feel like your allergies have been getting worse and worse, you're not wrong: A new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health analyzed more than 20 years of pollen data from 17 locations in the Northern hemisphere, and found that 71 percent showed significant increases in the seasonal or annual pollen load and that 65 percent showed significant increases in the length of the pollen season.

To find out why the researchers compared the changing pollen rates to changes in the highest and lowest temps for each area and found that these temperature changes were significantly correlated with increases in seasonal pollen. They conclude that their analysis shows "a clear positive correlation between recent global warming and an increase in the seasonal duration and amount of pollen for multiple allergenic plant species."

Yep: You can blame your worsening spring allergies on climate change.

ICYDK, Earth's global surface temperature in 2018 was the fourth warmest since 1880 (when modern temperature recording began), and the last five years have, collectively, been the warmest on modern record, according to NASA. (And, uh, this isn't super new: SIxteen of the 17 hottest years have occurred since 2000, according to a study published in Ecosphere.)

While it's bad right now, the trend is probably only going to continue: Future climate projections also suggest changes in the duration of the pollen season (ex: start date, maximum season duration, and end date) and an estimated doubling in sensitization to certain allergenic plants, according to the researchers from the Lancet study. (Yikes.)

And this isn't just something to shrug off. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that a whopping 50 million Americans suffer from nasal allergies. This time of year has gotten so intense that people are actually calling the spring allergy season the "pollen vortex."

The reason that small changes in temperature can have such profound effects is because it doesn't take much to send trees into "spring" mode: Even just having a few warm days in February and March cues trees (the first float on the allergy parade) to start pollen production, says Alyson Pidich, M.D., an internal medicine doctor for New York Medicine Doctors. Even if the weather quick-changes back to freezing (like spring often does), the pollen is already circulating through in the air, so your allergies are already making you miserable.

FYI, trees are the main culprit for springtime allergies, while grass strikes from May to July, and ragweed wreaks havoc in August and September, says Pidich.

If you're thinking, "I don't get allergies, so this doesn't matter to me," then listen up: "You can develop a new allergy or grow out of an old allergy at any point in your life," says Pidich. So this might just be the year that pollen makes you its new victim. Keep an eye out for the various symptom of outdoor allergies: runny nose, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, rashes and all-over itching, headaches, coughing, wheezing, sinus pressure and congestion, post-nasal drip, and even "allergic shiners" (dark circles). (Here's how to tell whether it's a cold, the flu, or allergies.)

To deal, you can try these natural allergy prevention tips and make sure you have filters in your vacuum and air conditioner to help filter out the pollen, says Pidich.

If you're an outdoor workout fiend, schedule your run, bike, or boot camp for the evening, because pollen counts are highest in the early a.m. (And learn about these other crucial tips for conquering runs during spring allergy season.)

You can also track the pollen index so you know which days will be particularly itch-inducing; find your local levels in most weather apps like The Weather Channel or Weather Underground, or head to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology website.

One general rule of thumb: Sunny, windy days are the worst for pollen, says Pidich. Although you may have heard that rain "washes" the pollen out of the air, it can actually "smash the pollen into smaller pieces which can then be inhaled more easily," says Pidich. If your symptoms are making you incredibly uncomfortable, it's time to head to your doc to get an allergy test or consider going on allergy medication, she says.

And if you're really suffering? Consider it an excuse to skip town! "There are really low pollen levels at the ocean," says Pidich. And since you're there for health reasons, you can totally use your sick days—we won't tell.


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