Spring has sprung. The weather is warming. The flowers are blooming. And noses are running, and eyes are watering.
For the estimated 20% of Americans allergic to pollen, even under the best of circumstances, spring can feel like the end of the world as they know it. After the recent release of a dramatic aerial photo of massive clouds of sneeze-inducing pollen that swept over North Carolina, allergy season is beginning to look apocalyptic.
The viral photo, now forever known as “pollenpocalypse,” shows a yellow sky of fine powder settling on cars, streets, waterways and landscape. North Carolina has seen shrouds of pollen similar to this before — pine tree pollen erupts across the state each spring — but never of this magnitude. While this is the highest pollen count in the area so far this year, it is hardly a record. Higher counts are being recorded in places including Oklahoma, Texas and Alaska.
This photo is signaling what meteorologists say will be a brutal allergy season ahead and an indication of things to come. Pollen loads and durations have steadily increased over the past two decades. While the tree pollen season may soon peak, the summer grass and fall ragweed seasons are being forecast to be potentially as severe. Forecasters expect 2019 to be worse than usual — and possibly the worst year ever — for allergies.
Throughout history, pollen has taken the fun out of spring for many a person. According to reports, pollen is an allergy trigger for 1 in 5 Americans. Approximately 8% of U.S. adults suffer from hay fever, and some estimates say up to 50 million Americans have nasal allergies.
Allergic reactions to pollen are nothing new. According to Kara Wada, a clinical assistant professor of allergy and immunology at Ohio State University, fossilized specimens of pollen granules have been found predating dinosaurs. Well over 5,000 years ago, Chinese people used the berries of the horsetail plant to relieve allergic symptoms. In ancient Egypt, more than 20 recommended treatments were recorded for countering a cough or difficulty breathing, including honey, dates, juniper and beer.
By the time Columbus landed on this continent, indigenous populations in Central and South America were using ipecacuanha — a root with expectorant and emetic properties — along with balsam to treat allergies. These agents are still used in some cold remedies today. Coca and tobacco leaves, used medicinally by the Incas, were later exported to Europe for additional experimentation for the treatment of rhinitis and asthma.
In modern times, medical science has identified numerous treatments. In the early 1900s, doses of pollen extracts were injected into patients as a form of allergy immunotherapy that is still used today. Allergy treatment typically involves using an over-the-counter nasal spray designed to help shut off the flow of inflammatory chemicals that trigger allergy symptoms. Another common type of allergy medication is antihistamine, used to counteract the effects of histamine, a body chemical involved in allergic reactions.
Allergies occur when the body’s internal radar system locks onto the wrong target, causing the immune system to overreact. When this happens, it can cause anything from mild annoyances such as hives or itchy eyes to life-threatening responses such as anaphylaxis, in which blood pressure plummets and airways start swelling shut. The treatment of seasonal hay fever alone is said to cost the United States between $3.4 billion and $11.2 billion a year in direct medical expenses. This does not factor in a substantially higher toll from lost productivity. Seasonal allergic rhinitis and allergic asthma are now affecting an estimated 10% to 30% of the world’s population and are on the rise. Asthma attacks currently lead to more than 20,000 emergency room visits each year in the U.S. Pollen seasons are longer, and pollen counts are higher. Researchers estimate that in some parts of the country, pollen counts of all varieties will double by 2040.
What are we to do? Experts say panicking will only make things worse.
Feeling stressed for any reason can affect allergies. According to Dr. Ahmad Sedaghat, an ear, nose and throat specialist affiliated with Massachusetts Eye and Ear, one effect is psychological. “Stress amplifies our emotional reaction to any symptoms we are having,” he tells Harvard Health.
The other effect of stress on allergies is physical. “Stress can make the allergic response worse,” Sedaghat adds. “We don’t know why exactly, but we think stress hormones can ramp up the already exaggerated immune system response to allergens. When you reduce stress levels and psychological stressors, you’ll feel like your quality of life has improved beyond just simply treating the allergies.”
“It’s not clear yet that stress reduction can directly reduce physical allergy symptoms, but there seems to be a mind-body connection when it comes to inflammatory diseases. So if you reduce stress, we would expect that stress hormone levels would go down, and the allergic overdrive to therefore go down as well,” he adds.
So stay calm. Minimize your exposure to allergens. After spending time outdoors, shower and change clothing to prevent ongoing exposure to pollen. If needed, consult with a board-certified allergist/immunologist to find out what allergens are causing your symptoms. Allergic reactions to pollen have plagued humankind for millennia, and things are now expected to get worse.
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