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Longer high-pollen seasons could be here to stay. Here's what allergists suggest
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Yellow pollen gathers along the shoreline of Lake Lanier Monday, April 12, 2021, at Lanier Point Park. The pollen count in the area has been high all spring so far. - photo by Scott Rogers

Runny and teary eyes, a scratchy throat, and a congested and drippy nose -- pollen season has taken hold in North Georgia. 

The pollen count in Georgia -- a count of 1,000 pollen grains or more is considered high -- has reached over 4,000 to 5,000 statewide in recent weeks and sinuses are flaring up.

The bad news, according to allergists, is that high-count pollen seasons could be arriving quicker in winter months and pollen counts as high as 4,000 could be more frequent as a result of climate change.

“Climate change which has a cause-and-effect with the timing of warm weather, has had a big effect on these longer and stronger pollen seasons,” said Dr. Poneh Davoodi Heine, an allergist with The Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center in Gainesville. “Pollen seasons that used to start in April are now starting in parts of March and February, and that trend could come sooner into earlier winter months over the next few years.”

Right now, Heine said, all those sniffles and sneezes are a result of abundant airborne tree pollen. Grass pollen and ragweed will be culprits for rampant allergies in the summer and fall months, respectively.

“Tree pollen is the heaviest time of the year, and it affects you where you don’t see it, which is in the air,” she said. “There are also other types of allergies such as pine which will cause a lot more irritation and grass pollen which will pop up more frequently in the summer months.”

The increasing pollen count and longer allergy seasons across the country have become a decades-long trend that has been attributed to human-caused climate change.

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Mild weather beckons people outdoors Monday, April 12, 2021, despite a high pollen count with oak, birch and sweet gum being the top allergens. The pollen count in the area has been high all spring so far. - photo by Scott Rogers

Multiple studies have linked “anthropogenic climate change” to a near thirty-year increase in pollen trends across the country.

“Our results indicate that human-caused climate change has already worsened North American pollen seasons, and climate-driven pollen trends are likely to further exacerbate respiratory health impacts in coming decades,” reads an excerpt from a report from the National Academy of Sciences in America.

A study at Harvard University shows that since 1990, pollen seasons have been lengthened by 20 days and contained 21% more pollen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that more frost-free days, warmer seasonal air temperatures, and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have led to longer, higher and quicker pollen seasons.

And those changes can dramatically affect asthmatic people or have allergic disorders such as rhinitis and conjunctivitis.

Dr. Heine said that allergy solutions such as antihistamine blockers and nasal steroids only help with symptom control, not allergy prevention.

Heine recommends that people look into an allergy shot for allergy prevention, which involves an upper-arm vaccination that helps the body and immune system adjust to seasonal shifts in pollen.

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Mild weather beckons people outdoors Monday, April 12, 2021, at Longwood Park despite a high pollen count. The pollen count in the area has been high all spring so far. - photo by Scott Rogers

“People know that there’s over-the-counter medication such as antihistamine treatments as well as Flonase and Nazoneck, which are popular nasal steroids,” said Heine. “Those are short-term solutions. Allergy shots are highly recommended for those with seasonal allergy issues because once you receive a shot, your body stops seeing the allergens as a disruptive thing but a normal thing.”

Heine also recommended that pet owners clean their pets after trips outside to prevent allergens and irritants from coming inside the home.

“Pollen can fall on their fur, ears and the pads on their paws and if that tracks inside your home, you’ll find yourself with more allergy-related issues,” she said. “It’s important to take a wet towel and wipe it over your pet to prevent them from tracking further irritants.”

After a year of symptom-checking during the COVID-19 pandemic, Heine said recognizing a few symptoms can alleviate fears of a COVID-19 diagnosis and confirm illness or symptoms related to allergies.

“Typical allergy symptoms are itchy and watery eyes, a drippy or runny nose, itching, and sneezing and sometimes drainage comes out the nose or back of the throat,” she said. “For COVID-19, a fever is a major symptom that doesn’t show up in allergy-related illness and COVID is going to have less sneezing, less itching.”

Heine also noted the difference between dry and wet coughs and a loss of taste, which are not symptoms commonly associated with allergies.