Allergies may be getting worse in Michigan. It’s not just you
- Warmer temperatures due to climate change may cause ‘aggressive’ pollen such as ragweed to become more common
- Over-the-counter nasal sprays and eyes drops can help alleviate common allergy symptoms like itchy eyes, coughing and sneezing
As the seasons change and temperatures rise, people spend more time doing outdoor activities that they miss during the colder months.
What most people don't miss are seasonal allergies.
As many as 60 million people suffer from seasonal allergies each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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The most common seasonal allergy is allergic rhinitis also known as hay fever, an allergic reaction to pollen from trees, grasses and weeds, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America which defines an allergy as the immune system’s reaction to a foreign substance.
Allergic reactions can lead to coughing, sneezing, hives, rashes, itchy eyes, a runny nose or a scratchy throat. Serious reactions can cause breathing trouble or induce asthma attacks.
While people have had seasonal allergies forever, climate change may be exacerbating the situation for some. Warmer temperatures can cause trees, grass and weeds to produce even more pollen than what they did in earlier years. Not only that, warmer winters can cause pollen season to start earlier in the year and end much later, according to Dr. J. Younes, an allergy specialist at the Allergy & Asthma Treatment Center in Lake Orion
Bridge Michigan spoke with Dr. Younes to learn more about spring allergy season in Michigan and what residents can do to mitigate and treat their seasonal allergies. (Answers have edited)
What are the most common allergies during this time of year?
In the early part of spring, we see a lot of patients who suffer from allergies caused by early pollinators like evergreen, maple, ash and birch trees. By mid-May the grass pollen will pick up and it becomes the main allergen.
How has allergy season changed in Michigan?
What’s unusual about this spring is that it got colder after it warmed up which can delay pollen season. Since we live in the Midwest the snow covers the pollen but if you go further south, allergy season starts much earlier because they don’t have snow to cover the soil.
On the other hand, the grass pollen typically doesn’t come before mid-May in Michigan. If the weather is warmer it could start earlier and if the weather is colder it could be delayed.
What role does climate change play in how many people are affected by seasonal allergies?
Increased CO2 levels, which promote pollen growth, and warming temperatures have caused aggressive pollen such as ragweed to become more common. We already know that ragweed is increasing by one percent every year and it’s expected to continue going up, so in the next 100 years it’s going to double.
Ragweed is most common during the late summer and dies down after the first frost in early fall. If temperatures continue to warm we expect the ragweed pollen season to expand over time. Those weeds are becoming more resistant to weed killers and they benefit from deforestation.
Are more people being diagnosed with seasonal allergies than in recent years?
In general, what we’re seeing is an explosion in the amount of people who experience not just seasonal allergies but all types of allergies especially among younger children. It’s not just limited to hay fever and other seasonal allergies. We’ve seen increased rates of food allergies and eczema in the last 20 or 30 years. About 30 or 40 percent of children have some kind of allergy.
How can you tell whether the symptoms you are experiencing are from an allergy or a cold?
The main thing is the duration. A cold should not last more than a few days versus when you have allergies it’s persistent and continuous. A cold also has day/night variation where a person feels better in the morning and worse at night. Itchy eyes are a good sign that a person doesn’t have a cold but rather an allergy.
What can people do to help alleviate their allergy symptoms?
I always mention to patients that pollen counts are higher in the afternoon. Unfortunately, this is when most children have their after-school physical activities and that can be very challenging. What we recommend is that everyone shower right when they get home from being outdoors. It would be ideal if patients can do their physical activity in the morning when the pollen counts are the lowest.
Allergy medication is another option that we recommend and many of them are over-the-counter now. Nasal sprays like Flonase (generic fluticasone, a corticosteroid nasal spray that treats allergy symptoms) are very safe and can be used long term. Ideally you should really start them a week or two ahead of the allergy season. Someone who is allergic to grass pollen should get a jump start and begin taking medications ahead of expected increases in pollen counts the following week for example.
Allergy eye drops can also be very effective. It is best to use them in the morning before going outside.
On the other hand, people should really avoid topical nasal decongestants like Afrin (generic oxymetazoline) (which quickly reduce nasal congestion) but cannot be used for more than 5 days as they become "addictive” resulting in "rebound nasal congestion." Oral antihistamines such as Allegra (generic fexofenadine) or Zyrtec (generic cetirizine) can also be used, but they aren’t as effective as intranasal steroid sprays (such as Flonase). Everyone should ask their doctor before using any medication.
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