After more than a year of rigorous mask-wearing, it's a little surreal to see people without their masks while socially distanced outside. You may have noticed a lot of people are looking a little red around the nose. Maybe you're even feeling it yourself. Seasonal allergies have been absolutely killer this year. But are they worse than usual, or are we just noticing it more right now, since with the end of the pandemic hopefully in sight, we're all going outdoors more often and ditching the masks that may have kept pollen away from our nostrils last year?
Anecdotally, people online have been commiserating over all manner of allergy symptoms and speculating why they feel worse than ever. And the science proves it: Allergies are worse this year. According to recent research and forecasting, 2021 is shaping up to be a brutal allergy year. Just like 2020, 2019, and 2018 were before it. The length and intensity of pollen seasons are growing, in large part due to climate change. As long as the planet continues to warm, experts anticipate that miserable allergies will be the norm. A recent study found that pollen season increased by 20 days annually between 1990 and 2018. At the same time, pollen concentrations — at least in North America — have increased by 21% during the same time period. In other words, pollen season lasts a lot longer than it did before, and because there's more pollen in the air, more people are being affected.
“Plants breathe in carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide levels are increasing on Earth as a side effect of [climate change],” allergist and immunologist Purvi Parikh, MD, told Well+Good. “It’s like the plants are on steroids, with mega-pollinator plants producing more pollen and for longer periods of time.”
Other factors can also contribute to making airborne pollen even more volatile right now. “Pollution like diesel exhaust and nitrogen oxide can lead to the creation of super pollen and very irritating air that triggers sneeze and mucus production,” internist and immunologist, Tania Elliott, MD, tells Refinery29. “Pollen can bind to diesel exhaust and it becomes super pollen — traveling longer distances and being bigger — making it a more potent allergen.”
Some experts have another theory about why allergies might feel worse this year. Due to less exposure to allergens in the past year because of lockdown, any tolerance we may have built up to them over previous years has waned slightly. If you take away the regular exposure, your body's ability to naturally resist the allergen could decrease — and it takes less to trigger stronger allergy symptoms.
So what can we be doing to alleviate even worse allergy symptoms this year? Unless you already know what you’re allergic to, it might help to get an allergy test, Shirin Peters, MD, founder of Bethany Medical Clinic, advises. That way you can better target your treatment regimen. You could also invest in an air purifier for your home. You can’t control the pollen in the air when you’re out and about, but you can at least make sure you’re getting some relief at home. “Take precautionary measures by making sure to throw clothes into the wash as soon as you walk inside from a day surrounded by grass and trees to reduce the spread of pollen in the home,” Peters told Refinery29. “It’s best to use a hypoallergenic detergent, since it's gentle on the skin as well. As for fabrics, use washable curtains made of plain cotton or synthetic fabrics, and dust mite-proof covers to seal dust away from pillows and mattresses.”
And we hate to say it, but this super allergy season is one reason to continue wearing a mask outdoors, even if we don't have to from a COVID perspective. As much as we're all growing weary of face masks, the filtration they provide can offer a small reprieve by blocking pollen from going in your nose and mouth. A 2020 study found that nurses who wore face masks during COVID-19 reported fewer allergy symptoms.
Of course, allergy meds can help. And not that we need another excuse to drink coffee, but the caffeine can help with drowsiness as well as congestion, Dr. Parikh told Well + Good. So if you’re suffering from a sinus headache, grab a decongestant and reward yourself with a nice coffee for added relief.
It’s not much of a consolation, but hey, at least now we know allergy season is actually worse this year and it’s not just in our heads.