Now that we have a few gorgeous spring days under our belt in Atlanta, many of us are battling the sniffles and sneezes that come hand in hand with the sunshine and dogwood blooms in north Georgia. We may love the sunny weather, but many of us are sent running indoors for tissue as soon as we step outside. If you are thinking that it seems early in the year for all of these issues to pop up, you’re right. While pollen-induced allergic reactions are a common problem for many Atlantans every year, research by climate scientists suggests that allergy season is starting earlier and lasting longer everywhere as global temperatures rise, prompting flowers and trees to bloom earlier than in decades past. The numbers back this up, like February 19th when the pollen count reached 820, which is the 4th highest February reading since the pollen record keeping began. That may not seem very high when you consider we normally hit the 6,000s by the time summer runs around, but any amount over 50 is considered high and will likely aggravate allergy sufferers.
Meteorologists and scientists are also predicting a particularly rough allergy season because of the type of winter weather we have had this year. A temperate and wet winter is far more likely to lead to an overactive pollen season than one that is bitterly cold or more on the dry side. Many of the plants that produce irritating pollen have remained only semi-dormant throughout the mild winter, and they are more than ready to unleash all of their little yellow granules straight into our respiratory systems. Other trees and flowers that have been fully dormant are experiencing an early awakening due to the mild temperatures.
What is Blooming Now?
At the end of winter and for the first few weeks of spring, the majority of the pollen we deal with comes from flowering trees that are among the first bloomers in our area. March and April can be rough months for anyone sensitive to the pollen released by oak, maple, birch, elm, sycamore and hickory trees, which are typically the first trees to begin releasing their little droplets of yellow poison. You might be surprised to learn that most allergy sufferers experience their most severe allergy symptoms around this time of year, when the trees first start to bloom and pollen grains are mostly small and able to invade the nose and lungs. By the time you actually see larger pollen grains coating cars and turning everything in Atlanta a hazy shade of yellow, many people have begun to adjust to their allergies, and their medications, and are no longer experiencing severe reactions. Also, the majority of that pollen you see building up on cars and mailboxes and everything else outside is yellow pine pollen, and very few people are allergic to that specific kind of pollen.
Late Spring and Summer Allergies
Allergies affect people differently, and many people who are sensitive to early spring tree pollens are hardly bothered by the grass and weed pollen that ramps up in the late spring and early summer. So, if you are one of those lucky people, you can expect your allergies to subside over the next couple of weeks. If however you are sensitive to grass pollens, 2021 may be a challenging year for you. Forecasters are already predicting that Georgia will experience both above-average grass and weed pollen pollen levels this season. The peak of grass and weed pollen season in Georgia is late June, so for most of us, the symptoms we are battling will subsite by early to mid July.
How Does COVID-19 Affect Allergy Season?
Unfortunately for allergy-sufferers, many of the symptoms high pollen levels bring about mirror the symptoms that some people experience from the Coronavirus. This includes congestion, nasal stuffiness, feeling overly tired, and for some, even a loss of the senses of smell and taste. It may be difficult for some people to tell if this is their normal seasonal allergy experience, or if they have contracted COVID. Doctors recommend that if you are experiencing these symptoms, that you get tested for Coronavirus just to be appropriately cautious, and that you follow all prescribed quarantine rules while you await the results.
Another reason that 2021’s allergy season may be worse for some sufferers is also indirectly due to COVID-19. Many people have spent more time than usual cooped up indoors over the past year, and now that vaccines are more prevalent and people are feeling more comfortable leaving their homes, they are spending more time outside. Doctors have reported that 2020 was a relatively light year for allergy-related medical visits, which makes sense because many people simply stayed inside. This year, the outdoors is calling like it never has before, and the unfortunate consequence of this for many people will be a bad allergy season.
There is a COVID-19 bright side when it comes to seasonal allergies though. Many people are still wearing masks when they go out and about, and those masks can block pollen from entering our respiratory systems through the nose and mouth. So while you may only be wearing masks indoors currently, if you are bothered by pollen, perhaps you could begin wearing your mask as you walk around outdoors as well. People who work outdoors have been employing this defense method for years, but now you will likely see more people wearing their masks during outside activities.
Tips for Minimizing Allergies
Luckily there are many things people can do to minimize their allergic reactions to the great outdoors. For example, planning outdoor activities for just after a rain will make it easier to stay outdoors longer without running for the tissues. Before measurable rain, there is a lot more pollen hanging around in the air and building up on surfaces. Even a small amount of rain can wash the granules from the air and off your outdoor furniture. If you can’t wait for a rainstorm to blow through to spend time outdoors, plan activities for earlier in the day. The morning hours are the ideal time to avoid pollen, because many plants have not yet had time to respond to their sunshine alarm clock and bloom. The worst time to be outdoors during pollen season is from 10am to 4pm. If you must go outside during these hours, change clothes and if possible shower immediately upon coming back inside. You might be surprised at how much pollen can remain on your clothing and in your hair after a just a short period of time in the elements.
While you are spending time indoors, keep windows closed to keep the pollen out. Replace your HVAC system filters regularly to keep pollen and other allergens from building up. Vacuuming is also recommended, but don’t overdo it. There’s only so much dust and pollen you can remove from your carpets, and over-vacuuming can cause actually more dust and carpet fibers to be kicked up. You can also monitor the daily pollen count during the weather segment of Atlanta’s local news programs, and try to plan your outdoor time for the days when the numbers dip lower than others.
Don’t forget your furry friends when it comes to allergy mitigation. If your pets spend time outdoors, be sure to wipe their fur and paws down with a damp towel when they return indoors, to make sure they are not bringing extra pollen back in with them. If your pets are allowed on the furniture, this is even more important, because any pollen that attaches to their fur will likely transfer to your couch or bed.
Dealing with Seasonal Allergies Medically
There are various medications on the market that claim to relieve allergy symptoms, and many do not require a prescription. Claritin, Zyrtec and Xyzal are examples of popular brands, each with a different active ingredient. Not every medicine will work well for every person, so you may need to try a few before you settle on the right medicine for you. There are also nasal sprays, such as Flonase, that can help with allergy symptoms, and nasal cleaning apparatuses like neti pots that claim to rid your nasal passages of the offending pollen granules. Nasal cleaning systems can be tricky to use though, so be sure to do your research before attempting this.
Some people also swear by local honey, though researchers disagree about the efficacy. Fans of this remedy claim that local honey contains the pollens that you are going to encounter outdoors near your home, and that daily exposure by ingesting a spoonful of honey will build up your immunity to the allergens. Many doctors will tell you that this is simply an old wives tale, but when it comes to spoonfuls of honey, what can it hurt?
While there are many over the counter allergy medications available, doctors recommend that anyone who is suffering from allergies be seen in the office. A doctor can help you narrow down exactly what you are allergic to so that you can more easily avoid your allergy triggers. Knowing what is causing your allergic reaction can also help you and your doctor determine which allergy medication, whether over the counter or prescription, will work best to tame your specific allergic reactions. An ENT can perform the simple tests needed to determine what is triggering your symptoms.