If it seems as if your spring allergies are starting earlier and lasting longer, you can chalk this up to another problem caused by climate change. Pollen season is getting the jump on spring and starting as much as four weeks earlier, according to the Weather Channel. Warmer weather and increased precipitation are giving pollen-producing plants a headstart on the growing season, thus driving those of us with our sniffly noses and itchy red eyes absolutely nuts.
“Due to climate change we’re seeing warmer temperatures everywhere and, as a result of that, pollen season is starting two, three, four weeks earlier in spring because of the early thaw,” Dr. Cliff Bassett, a fellow for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America told the Weather Channel. “In the fall, ragweed season is three to four weeks earlier.”
The climate change induced warmer weather provides a longer growing season and that means more pollen to torment our noses.
“One ragweed plant produces one billion pollen grains,” Bassett remarked. “The United States Department of Agriculture did some experiments showing ragweed plants can produce three to four more times pollen than usual due to increased carbon dioxide levels.”
Increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere hastens plant growth by acting like fertilizer, according to the United States Environment Protection Agency (EPA). With warming temperatures and increased precipitation, some plants are growing faster, blooming earlier and producing more pollen. Temperature changes do, in fact, mean that allergy seasons are expected to start earlier and last longer as the distribution of allergenic plant varieties changes over time.
Not only that, recent scientific studies suggest that climate-related temperature changes are expected to increase the potency of airborne allergens. This will also increase the concentration of pollen in the air, lengthen the allergy season and will also increase allergy symptoms, the EPA reports.
Even worse, more allergen-producing plant species will turn into party-crashers, barging into new areas where they’ve never been before. Dust, carted around by the wind and carrying pollens and molds from outside the U.S. could expose people to new allergens and exposure to more potent concentrations of pollen and mold may hasten allergies in people who have never had them before. These airborne allergens are known as aeroallergens and they include pollens which can be produced by grasses, weeds, and trees. Molds and other indoor allergens are also considered to be aeroallergens.
All of which makes my nose itch.
Aeroallergens are associated with hay fever, asthma, and eczema–three diseases that are pricey and huge economic burdens. The direct medical costs of asthma is estimated to be $12.5 billion, while for hay fever, the costs are estimated to be $6.2 billion per year (in 2005 dollars), according to the EPA, citing reports by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Other studies report that the direct medical costs for eczema are between $1.2 billion-$5.9 billion per year (also in 2005) dollars. A substantial chunk of change indeed.
Last year, more than 23.6 million Americans were diagnosed with hay fever, Science Daily reports. The prevalence of allergies is on the upswing, with as many as 30 percent of adults and up to 40 percent of children dealing with at least one allergy.
So what’s an allergy sufferer to do?
If allergies are being a pain, you can stop them in their tracks before you have to bring in the heavy artillery (over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines). There’s evidence to suggest that the following natural supplements may work, according to WebMD:
- Butterbur. “I think of all the allergy supplements, it has the best evidence behind it,” says David Rakel, MD, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Program, according to WebMD. Butterbur appears inhibit leukotreines, blocking chemicals that trigger swelling in the nasal passages. Research suggests that one type of extract (Ze 339) can be as effective as the antihistamines Zyrtec and Allegra at relieving your stuffed-up nose. Another plus: It doesn’t cause drowsiness. “For someone who is driving a car or flying a plane and really needs to avoid the sedative effects of an allergy medication, butterbur is a good alternative,” Rakel said. Keep in mind that raw, unprocessed butterbur is dangerous. If you have long-term allergy symptoms, butterbur might be a no-go because researchers aren’t sure if it’s safe to use for long periods.
- Quercetin. It’s thought that quercetin, which is found in wine and many fruits and vegetables, may work as a mast cell stabilizer. This means it helps block the release of histamines that trigger inflammation. “Quercetin is sort of the herbal equivalent to cromolyn sodium (in the over-the-counter spray NasalCrom),” Rakel told WebMD. “The evidence is promising.” Some experts are skeptical, however, about how well quercetin really works. Not enough research has been conducted on quercetin for scientists to really know how effective it is; some actually doubt that enough of it is absorbed during digestion, WebMD reports. So stay tuned.
- Bromelain. Studies have shown that bromelain helps to reduce nasal swelling and thins out mucus, thus making it easier for us to breathe. Used in conjunction with drug treatment for sinus infections may be particularly effective. After fighting with asthma, sinus infections and pneumonia for several years, I’ve learned to use bromelain. I find it does help me breathe easier.
- Tinospora cordifolia. There’s only been one well-researched study conducted on this, but the evidence suggests that this herb, which comes in tablet form from India, may reduce allergy symptoms, especially sneezing, itching, and nasal discharge. Since the evidence is only preliminary, the long-term safety of T. cordifolia hasn’t been determined yet. It appeared to be safe during the 8-week research study, but more research needs to be done, WebMD reports.
Before you try any of these remedies, talk to your doctor first, especially if you have any medical conditions, are breast-feeding or are pregnant, are under 18 years of age, or if you use any daily medications.
With the effects of climate change becoming increasingly evident, allergy seasons are changing drastically. Bassett notes that spring allergy season starts as early as February in some states and bumps against summer allergy season, and that in turn, runs into the fall allergy season, which lasts until the first frost. The first frost normally kills plants and halts pollen production, but now it’s occurring two to four weeks later than usual in some areas and that’s due to warmer temperatures that are lasting longer.
“This is the perfect storm for allergies because you have more pollen, a longer season, and you have people becoming sensitized to these allergens,” Bassett told WebMD. “It’s creating an epidemic of seasonal allergies.”
Some areas with temperate climates, like the southeast and southern plains where temperatures are warmer and winters are milder are now experiencing allergy seasons almost year-round.
Sigh. Time to stock up on tissues.