“It really is unusually early for patients to be this miserable,” says Derek Johnson, medical director of the Fairfax Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Clinic. “The mild winter has resulted in very high pollen levels in February and early March, when they’re typically very low or negligible.” In fact, he points out that tree pollen counts on Feb. 23 were 365 grains per cubic meter, compared with a mere 2.88 a year before. He also notes that because it has been so sunny and warm in the past few months, people have spent more time outside, increasing their exposure to such allergens.
The weather from here on out can change things, but all of the experts I spoke with say they expect the untimely effects to linger. “In past years, we’ve had a very compact, heavy-hitting allergy season, but this is shaping up to be a long slog,” says Gaithersburg allergist Jackie Eghrari-Sabet, who explains that while evergreen trees, such as cedar, cypress and juniper, have budded prematurely, other species will likely bloom at their regular pace, leading to “more of a slow, grand parade” between now and late April to early May, when pollen counts typically peak. “It’s not like because it started early it’s going to end early.”
And, of course, trees are only the start: “As soon as the tree pollens are over, overlapping at the other end, probably, will be grass pollens, and if we’re really unlucky and it’s a hot, hot summer, weed pollens really thrive in the heat, and some molds thrive in the heat, especially when it’s dry,” she says. “So this could be a constant buffet of pollens and mold” all the way through summer at least.
This early hay fever season comes on top of an already tough fall and winter for allergy sufferers, with nary a break from the onslaught, which allergists say may be compounding symptoms for many people.
“There is something called priming that happens that’s sort of like an additive effect: One thing just builds upon another and another and adds up to a much larger overall problem,” Eghrari-Sabet says. She notes that this year, allergy sufferers were exposed to ragweed and other fall pollens for longer periods because the Washington area never had a period of really good, hard frost. Some mold counts also stayed high because of a wet, mild winter. “Now we come into spring and people are already inflamed and congested and absolutely primed for a more significant reaction to the tree pollen, because we haven’t really had a dormant season in all of this. So you’re not starting from the ground floor.”
Because of the unusually early arrival of spring allergies, many folks (including myself) have mistaken symptoms such as a runny nose, scratchy throat and itchy eyes for a run-of-the-mill head cold or the flu. The result is that many people did not begin the preventive regimens that allergists recommend — such steps as daily pills and steroid nasal sprays — well before plants and trees begin to flower. The buildup of these medicines in your system can help minimize or even eliminate allergic reactions and the accompanying misery all spring long.
“Normally we tell patients to start those at the beginning of March, so they’re protected and have good control and coverage by the time that pollens really hit a significant level,” says Johnson. “But this year everybody was caught by surprise — including allergists — and so there are probably very few patients who’d already started those medications at the beginning of February, when you really needed to this year.” He adds that it’s not too late to start taking them: They can make you feel better even if you’ve missed the longer-term preventive benefits.
Some experts warn that warmer winters may be the wave of the future.
“There have definitely been some data indicating that climate change is causing spring to advance and plants of all sorts to flower earlier in the season,” says biologist Estelle Levetin, chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology’s aerobiology committee. She points out that a recent study has shown that the fall ragweed season is also getting longer in the northern United States and in Canada. “But we can’t say for sure that global warming is to blame, based on one year, because of the year-to-year variation in weather and other factors.” Still, she says that if this is the trend, then the spring allergy season in our area will likely advance by a month or so, more closely resembling the situation in, for example, North and South Carolina.
Hay fever sufferers would be wise to start taking peak-season precautions now, Johnson says: changing clothes and showering after outdoor activities, keeping the windows closed and using the air conditioner on recirculate in your car, and avoiding alfresco exercise early in the morning, when pollen counts are highest.
Personally, I’m back on my medication routine. I’m also praying for a snow day to slow down these beautiful but pesky trees and flowers.