Warm Winter Means Allergy Season is Here

Allergies are affected by trees pollinating earlier

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

This warm winter weather is something to sneeze at. Because of the warm weather, many trees are pollinating early meaning the start of allergy season has come sooner than expected.

If you are experiencing itchy eyes, a runny nose, sneezing or a cough and are chalking it up to the common cold, you may be experiencing your seasonal allergy symptoms. The warm weather has given the head start for trees to begin pollinating. With this unexpected start to allergy season, there are plenty of things you can do to ease your pain.

People in south are already experiencing medium to high pollen counts. Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, Alabama, Missouri and Georgia are already experiencing medium pollen counts. Tree pollen is the culprit, more specifically the pollen from juniper, elm, alder, ash, bald cypress and maple.

dailyRx had the chance to talk to esteemed allergist, Anthony Szema, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine and Surgery at the Stony Brook University of Medicine and his private practice Stony Brook Allergy & Asthma, about the upcoming allergy season. For Dr. Szema the weather plays a vital role in your allergies and the mild winter may be a nice escape from the cold, it can lead to a harsher allergy season. 

Global Warming Heats Up Your Allergies

While global warming has been a hot button topic for environmentalists it has also been a cause for concern for allergists. For Dr. Szema global warming, or more accurately climate change, affects not just the allergy season but the type of pollen itself.

“Climate change actually is not just warming, climate change means the winters are usually more severe because the cold arctic air from the north is blown further south at a given latitude, when the Earth is further away from the Sun in orbit,” says Dr. Szema. “During the summer, when the Earth is closer to the Sun in orbit, it is a hotter summer,” notes Dr. Szema on the affect of climate change on the seasons.

While climate change may cause colder winters and hotter summers, that has not been the case for 2012. “This winter has been pretty mild around here, in Long Island. It's a more volatile change when we talk about climate change,” notes Dr. Szema.

Climate change's affect on the seasons plays a role in the wildlife and vegetation of an area. “What's been happening at a latitude of 44 degrees is more warmer weather has been occurring in the last several decades,” observes Dr. Szema. "The United States Geological Survey has classified this region as five degrees warmer. Different types of flora, different plants that normally could not have grown here 50 to 80 years ago are now thriving here even though they are warmer weather plants.”  

Warm Weather Means More Pollen

This trend of warm weather has been going on for longer than a century. Aside from the United States Gelogical Survey data that Dr. Szema mention, other studies have noticed this warming trend. "If you look at the trends towards this global warming and increasing temperatures," notes Dr. Szema, "our medical students have studied the temperatures in Central Park, and they have been going up over the last century or so."

According to Dr. Szema the warm winter weather has a huge impact in seasonal allergies. "Warmer winters lead to earlier and longer spring tree pollen seasons; and, in fact, the potency of allergens is increased significantly," says Dr. Szema, "In addition, more pollen is generated for each Fahrenheit degree rise in temperature."

Just because you may not consider yourself an allergy sufferer, high pollen levels can wreak havoc on your day. "Even patients without allergies and asthma may have watery eyes, runny noses, sore throat, fullness in the ears, cough, and wheeze if they are exposed to high concentrations of particulate air pollution due to elevated pollen counts," notes Dr. Szema.

Spring Means Tree Pollen Season

Spring means flowers are blooming but more importantly, tree pollen is in the air. "In Long Island, the tree, spring pollen, season is oak, birch, hickory, maple, sycamore and elm, those are all the deciduous tress that pollinate in the spring," according to Dr. Szema. "It differs depending on which region of the country you live in," notes Dr. Szema, "But in general we are talking about trees in spring, grasses in summer, weeds in the fall and then indoor aeroallergens during this time of the year; so dust mites antigens, dog, cats, feathers, those sorts of things." 

Another allergy factor to consider is an unexpected one. "If there is a thunderstorm, the asthma rates go up like crazy," says Dr. Sezma. "The lightning and thunder stir up the pollen and pulverize it into smaller particles so a day or two after the thunderstorm we get so-called "thunderstorm asthma"; people who are sensitive to the grass pollen will actually show up in the emergency after a thunderstorm."

Trees and pollen are not the only culprits when it comes to allergy symptoms. Human contributions to air pollution, such as car exhaust or smog, further exacerbate allergy symptoms according to Dr. Szema. Luckily, there are ways to combat allergies, including the allergy shot.

Don't Be Scared of the Allergy Shot

Itchy eyes, runny nose or a cough are common allergy symptoms but like humans, allergy symptoms come in all shapes and sizes. "Some patients even get itchy skin and rashes when exposed to pollen they are allergic to," says Dr. Szema. Another, more drastic, step in combating your allergy symptoms is through allergy immunotherapy.

Allergy immunotherapy, also known as an allergy shot, gradually exposes an individual to the larger and larger doses of the allergen that they are sensitive to. The allergy shot acts as a way to immunize a patient from the allergen, much like how a flu shot works, by building up the immune system's response against the irritant. The allergy shot can reduce symptoms and can reduce inflammation that is associated with asthma.

Allergy shots have particularly important benefits to children. "Allergy immunotherapy prevents children with allergic rhinitis from developing permanent allergic asthma," states Dr. Szema. Rhinitis is inflammation in the mucus membranes of the nose. "These so-called "allergy shots" also may reduce asthma symptoms in selected patients," explains Dr. Szema, "Bee sting anaphylaxis (going into shock from honeybees) warrants allergy immunotherapy because it reduces the risk of shock when stung again by approximately 90 percent. Without allergy shots, the converse is true, meaning that a bee-allergic person continues to have a 90% risk of shock the next time he or she is stung."

Expect A Severe Allergy Season

With spring approaching, expect a sever allergy season. "Based on the fact that we had a mild winter we would expect an earlier spring and a more severe pollen count this spring," according to Dr. Szema.  "Extremes in temperature affect the asthma rates because if the temperature is hot," says Dr. Szema.  "There is something called the “temperature inversion effect” and all the hot air pushes all the smog closer to the ground and the sea level and there's more air pollution. It's like a bad day is Los Angeles when the weather is hot."  

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a cold winter can lead to more severe asthma symptoms. "If you relate weather to emergency visits, the increased emergency room visits in the South Bronx, for example, actually occur in the winter when temperatures are the coldest," states Dr. Szema, "When the weather is extremely cold that is also associated with cold air exacerbated asthma."

Check Pollen Levels as Part of Your Daily Routine

Another way to combat some of these allergies is free. Checking pollen levels on various free websites will help you prepare for what the day has in store.

Visiting the National Allergy Bureau's Pollen Counts website will provide you with accurate and detailed information about pollen levels as well as what allergens are most prevalent. This can let you know if you should take medicine to control symptoms or if you'll be symptom-free. You wouldn't go outside without checking the weather, why should you go outside without checking the pollen count? Make it a part of your daily routine to help battle allergy season.