Allergy sufferers can't help but dread the coming season. And if you're to believe the reports, this year is going to be an especially bad one. Before you despair though, try typing "allergy season" and a year between 2010 and the present into your search engine. What do you find? Pages of headlines claiming it will be the worst year on record — just about every year. This isn't a sign of end-times for allergy sufferers as much as it is exaggerated or misconstrued reports. "It does occasionally occur but it's not every year," says Dr. David Shulan, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) who has particular expertise in the allergy seasons of the northeast United States. We recruited Shulan to help us wade through the hype and give it to us straight on how bad allergy season really will be this year.
Why the Hype
Allergy season predictions have become annual click-bait for a reason. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, approximately 40 million Americans have seasonal or perennial allergies as their main allergy. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in the prior 12 months, 17.6 million adults were diagnosed with hay fever.
For some, pets, dust, or pollen allergies may mean itchy eyes and some sneezing but, for others, it can be fairly debilitating, making it difficult to concentrate on work or school. "Certain times of the year for certain types of sufferers are really tough," says Shulan. "And, occasionally, there are some really, really bad years."
Perfect Pollen Weather
Weather affects pollen production and the news tends to milk that relationship. Read enough of about this association, however, and you'll notice that all weather seems to be cause for concern. A drought lets pollen fly unhampered by moisture but the polar vortex was supposed to precede the "pollen vortex." An early spring brings early budding but a late one builds up into a pollen explosion. Among all of these wide-ranging scenarios, one specific weather pattern is actually prime for pollen: "Dry weather. Sunny skies with a gentle breeze are ideal for pollen to be promulgated," says Shulan. If this type of spring weather follows a winter wet enough to water the plants, pollen will likely flourish. Rain during budding season, however, helps to cut down on pollen in the air.
Furthermore, it's nearly impossible to forecast pollen for big regions, or especially, nationwide. Just as weather varies from place to place and day to day, pollen counts also vary depending on time and location (and pollen type). According to Shulan's measurements in Albany, New York from 1988 to 2012, 2008 was a remarkably bad year for tree pollen. That year, it reached nearly 50,000 grains per cubic meter versus about 25,000 and 30,000 in the surrounding years and 5,000 in 1988.
The Upward Trend
The allergy season hysteria is often overinflated but, in truth, they do seem to be getting worse. "Putting aside the hype, if you look at the total number of people with allergies, the trend is going up," says Shulan. Certain types of pollen in certain areas seem to be increasing as well. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that climate change could increase the growth of plants that produce allergic pollen and the potency of these allergens. They said that higher levels of CO2 work as fertilizer, while warmer temperatures and increased precipitation cause some of these plants to grow faster, bloom earlier, and release more pollen. Climate change may also result in allergens moving into areas where they weren't formerly present.
What We Can Learn from Pollen Counts
Pollen predictions, like many kinds of predictions, deserve some skepticism but they can be useful. Shulan says that pollen counts have been found to relate to emergency room visits for asthma. They can also alert allergy sufferers to what allergens might be triggering them and, once they've narrowed that down, what days they might want to take extra precautions. "If the pollen is very high, maybe stay in air conditioning indoors and avoid exposure during the peak time [which is usually the morning]," says Shulan. "This can certainly decrease symptoms." Taking medications, like the one-two punch of long-acting nasal steroids and fast-acting antihistamines, can also help.