More than 50 million Americans (about 16%) suffer various types of allergies each year. In fact, allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergic rhinitis (hay fever), which has been making a lot of people itchy and sneezy this spring, affects 6.1 million children and 20 million adults nationwide. That’s a lot of Kleenex! Brianna Steinhilber discovered some reasons why many perennial allergy sufferers are finding allergy seasons longer in duration and more severe:
“It is a bad pollen season, and part of the reason is progressively, year to year the pollen season has been getting worse due to climate change,” says Dr. Purvi Parikh, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist with Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill in New York City, and spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network. “We are having rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere and plants feed off of that, so we’re producing these super-high pollen plants; the pollen is more potent and it’s in the air for much longer. The season is much longer, too.”
Not to mention that year-round allergens like dust mites, mold and animal dander are still wreaking havoc. “People are still reacting to those year-round allergens in the pollen season, but now there’s extra allergen in the air, which can make their reactions even worse; it’s potentiating an already ongoing allergic reaction,” says Dr. Parikh.
It has been estimated that by mid-century, as a result of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, plants will produce nearly three times the amount of pollen compared to the beginning of the century. Ragweed is expected to produce 320% more pollen by 2100 if CO2 continues to rise, according to some climate models. (If you have a baby, you have every reason to expect her to be alive and kicking in 2100.) In addition, in regions where increased precipitation is expected (say “Hello!” Pittsburgh — and the rest of the Ohio Valley — where rain, flooding, and landslides have already been on the increase since 1980), the growth of mold will only cause more suffering in those who react to it. Steinhilber describes an allergic reaction:
“Essentially what happens is your immune system decides that it wants to become hyper-sensitive, or allergic, to something. So your immune system recognizes pollen [or another allergen] as foreign and it releases a big amount of a chemical called histamines into your blood stream. What the histamine does is triggers this whole immune, or inflammatory, cascade of itchy, watery eyes and stuffy or runny nose. Some people are unlucky and it can be even more severe where they can have breathing problems, asthma attacks, and even bad skin reactions, like flare-ups of eczema, hives or rashes from it as well, because we have histamines and allergy cells throughout our entire body.”
The timing of the onset of symptoms gives certain clues about the offending allergen(s):
“Tree pollen is the first one, it usually starts in late March/early April, then this goes down and grass pollen is in the air May and June. Then late summer/early fall we see weed pollens, as well as ragweed. Some people may be unlucky and allergic to all of them and they are suffering a lot of months out of the year, or they might just be allergic to one and it’s a few weeks.”
Before considering giving a child medications to provide relief for the miserable symptoms of allergic rhinitis, there are a few non-pharmaceutical interventions parents can try. Kristen Stuppy, M.D. suggests starting with limiting exposure to the offending allergen(s), beginning with keeping outside allergens like pollen from coming inside:
Remove clothing and shoes that have pollen on them when entering the house to keep pollen off the couch, beds, and carpet.
Keep the windows closed. Sorry to those who love the “fresh air” in the house. For those who suffer from allergies, this is just too much exposure!
Evening bath time makes sense for kids and adults with allergies:
Wash hair, eyelashes, and nose after exposures — especially before sleep. They all trap allergens and increase the time your body reacts to them.
Dr. Stuppy reminds us about the importance of avoiding secondhand tobacco smoke:
Keep smoke away. Smoke is an airway irritant and can exacerbate allergy symptoms.
Remember that the smoke dust remaining on hair, clothing, upholstery, and other surfaces can cause problems too, so kids can be affected even if you don’t smoke near them.
And for those of you who vape, it’s not better. We’re still learning the risks of e-cigarettes because vaping is relatively new, but early data supports staying away from e-cigs!
Read the rest of Kristen Stuppy’s article, “Spring is here and it brought the pollen!”, in which she offers a thorough review of medical treatment options for allergic rhinitis, on her pediatric practice’s excellent blog, Quest for Health KC.