If you feel like your seasonal allergies are worse than usual this year, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that you're not alone, and you're definitely not imagining it. The bad news is that your seasonal allergies really are getting worse, and experts say that climate change is to blame. (Okay, both of those things are bad news, but hopefully you feel a little vindicated.)
Neeta Ogden, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, says this is because climate change causes warmer weather and higher carbon dioxide levels, both of which allow plants to flourish and cause higher levels of pollen — which in turn, makes you sneezy and congested.
Allergic reactions happen when your immune system overreacts to allergens, which are normally harmless, but can trigger some of us all the same. In the case of seasonal allergies, pollen is the main culprit, and Dr. Ogden says that since pollen counts get higher every year, our allergies are getting worse.
So, if you've always suffered from seasonal allergies, it's probably not a huge surprise when springtime comes around and you're constantly congested (even if it feels worse this time around). But if you didn't have seasonal allergies as a kid, we have more bad news: You can still get them later in life, though researchers aren't exactly sure why that happens. And, even if you're not necessarily developing a new springtime allergy, pollen might still make you sneezy.
"The truth of the matter is [some people] might not have allergies — they’re just responding to the quantity of the pollen," says allergist Tania Elliott, MD. "On the high pollen-count days, these people all of a sudden have allergy-type symptoms."
While "allergy-type symptoms" might not be as bad as an allergic reaction, Dr. Elliott says that because the pollen is so abundant, anyone who inhales a lot of it might suffer.
"The pollen can act as an irritant for a lot of people — not necessarily an allergy, but it provokes nasal passage and lungs," Dr. Elliott says.
Generally, if you're having an allergic reaction as opposed to a developed allergy, it won't be as severe and likely won't last quite as long. But if you normally deal with seasonal allergies, the key to getting through it is prevention.
What we’re seeing is that pollen counts in the spring continue to get worse every year.
Neeta Ogden, MD
"If you’re a seasonal allergy sufferer, the number one thing you should be doing is seeing a board-certified allergist and checking in with them well before the season," Dr. Ogden says. "Because allergies are getting worse and worse, it’s a really good idea to be prepared — once allergy season hits, it’s kind of late to start medications and expect to be better very quickly."
Even if it's still chilly out and allergy season doesn't seem to be on the horizon, Dr. Elliott says she'll typically have patients start on allergy medication around March, because the climate can be so unpredictable.
But if you just discovered that you have allergies and it's too late for prevention, the more you can avoid the things that trigger them, the better off you'll be. If you have to be outside, make sure you're taking allergy medication, and try to keep allergens from getting into your home.
"The second you come inside, take off your shoes right away, take off your clothes, put them in the washing machine, and go into the shower and rinse the pollen off of you — otherwise you track it into your home with you, and your house isn’t being protected," Dr. Elliott says.
Another pro-tip: Avoid hairspray and contact lenses if you can, because pollen can get stuck to your hair and in your lenses.
There may not be a cure for allergies just yet, but there are definitely things you can do to make them more manageable. And if worse comes to worst, check in with a doctor so that you're not just aimlessly wandering your local drugstore, trying to choose between two random allergy medications.