Q. Anecdotally, there seem to be more people than usual this spring who are suffering from allergies here in Charlottesville. Is there any data – perhaps pollen count numbers – that can say how this season compares to past years?
A. Sophisticated observational and phenological models have been developed to predict the start and burden of pollen seasons with increasing accuracy. Thus, there is a general suspicion that this and future pollen seasons will indeed be more severe based on a multiyear trend toward longer and higher count pollen seasons, possibly due to the effects of climate change.
In a very recent study published in March 2022 in Nature Communications by Drs. Yingxiao Zhang and Allison Steiner addressing the impact of climate change on pollen seasons, investigators used historical data and future meteorological predictions to forecast what pollen seasons will look like at the end of the century (2081-2100). They found that future pollen seasons will start up to 40 days earlier, last up to 19 days longer and produce up to double the amount of pollen per species per year, subject to rain keeping down total counts.
In the Charlottesville area, spring brings warm weather and some of our highest total peak pollen counts compared to other times in the year. Tree season extends typically from late February through mid-late May, just as grass pollens are taking charge for the summer. This year, significant tree pollen counts were recorded in mid-February, and in the past as early as late January.
In preparation for this article, I contacted Sue Kossky at the US Army Centralized Allergen Extract Laboratory – who leads our region’s closest National Allergy Bureau certified counting station – for a comparison of this year’s counts to prior years. The brief warm spell in midwinter did lead to huge peaks in cedar, cypress and juniper tree pollen in mid-March this year, contributing to this year’s severe flare of allergies among those sensitized in the community.
However, our overall counts are turning out to be in line with previous years due to the resulting cold spells and rain we’ve experienced over the last several weeks. We will see what grass season brings in May through August, only to be followed by weed and mold season in the fall.
Q. We tend to just assume pollen is the main contributing factor to these spring allergies, but are there any other things that play a role that people should be cognizant of?
A. Great question. I can’t tell you how many times I evaluate who are sure patients they “only have seasonal allergies,” when in fact after allergy testing we discover that they have been sensitized to allergens that are present yearlong, most commonly dust mites and animal dander Once started on appropriate treatment and avoidance measures, they suddenly realize that they have been miserable all year long and were only noticing the exacerbations that occurred during seasonal pollen seasons.
In addition, many are allergic afflicted with not only rhinitis, but also have an element of nonallergic rhinitis where they are more sensitive to irritants such as heavy particulates, fumes and barometric pressure changes. As spring comes and we increase our outdoor exposure to dust, dirt and even heavy pollens that don’t cause allergies, we see flares of this nonallergic component of their suffering.
Q. For allergy sufferers, is there any respite on the horizon? When does this particularly tough stretch subside?
A. For those sensitive to tree pollens, the end is near. We are winding down tree pollen season, but watch out for grass just now kicking in. For those allergic to trees, grasses and weeds in this area, they can be symptomatic literally from February through the first freeze in early winter. Rain is not only great for the greenery of Charlottesville; it also helps keep down the pollen counts.
Q. Do you have any tips for allergy sufferers that may make their situations more bearable?
A. Talk with your primary care doctor and allergy specialist. Find out what you are allergic to so that you can predict when symptoms will occur and take measures to minimize your exposure to allergens. Simple things like taking the right medications at the right time and wearing a mask to cut the grass, if you are allergic, can vastly improve your quality of life.
There are great prescription and over-the-counter medications to control symptoms, but they work best when taken in advance of exposure and regularly as prescribed during peak seasons. Seeking longer term treatments that give you a chance for a cure (with allergy shots and tablets taken under the tongue) for a few allergens should also be considered.