After the end of an unusually warm winter the spring has come early and this has affected asthmatics in parts of the South and Midwest this year. The 25 to 35 percent of people who suffer from hay fever, the early arrival of warm weather meant an unusually early start to allergy season due to the abundance of pollens.
Doctors say the spring related problems stretches from Mississippi to Ohio and from Georgia to Texas, where drought conditions have exacerbated the problem. Forecasters and allergists blame the unseasonably warm weather, and few cold snaps, for causing plants to bloom weeks early and release the allergy-causing particles.
In some parts of the country, allergists say they have been seeing a rush of patients as far back as February experiencing sneezing, sniffling and stuffed sinuses brought on by a mild winter. Trees release their pollen as the weather turns warm, and in parts of the country where spring seemed to arrive a month or two early, so, too, did high pollen counts.
“Whenever you see a mild winter, it should be a warning to people with allergies that there may be an early start to the allergy season,” said Dr. Michael Marcus, the director of allergy services at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. “But not everybody was attuned to that shift in weather, and so some people were caught unawares.”
In some areas, allergists say pollen counts this week are as high as they've ever recorded. A clinic at Vanderbilt University in Nashville recorded 11,000 grains of pollen per cubic meter Tuesday, the worst in the 12 years they've tracked the number. The Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic has measured pollen since the 1980s and says this week's counts have beaten a high mark recorded there in April 1999. Their count for Tuesday was almost 9,400. Fifteen-hundred is considered very high.
“Over these last two weeks, we’ve been seeing patients come in with a lot of nasal congestion, and especially patients with ocular allergies, who are starting to get that irritation in the eyes, and the burning, itching, redness and swelling,” Dr. Marcus said. “Patients with asthma that is triggered by tree pollen are also seeing their asthma symptoms creep back in, which starts with coughing and chest tightening.”
The medical director of the Vanderbilt Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Program says he's been seeing more patients. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says more than 40 million Americans have nasal allergies, popularly called hay fever. In severe cases, sufferers have difficulty breathing that can send them to the emergency room.
Spring arrived prematurely — along with sales of nose spray. “It's blooming so early,” said Sam Roberts, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn. “Grass mowing has started early this year and stirred things up.”
Ranee Randby, community relations director for the Knox County Health Department, said Knoxville's scenic location in the Tennessee valley contributes to the problem. “We're surrounded by mountains and whatever gets in here stays in here. It's like a bowl,” she said. “It's a beautiful, green part of the country but pollen comes with that.” In San Antonio, Texas, patients with allergies have increased in the past few weeks at Southwest General Hospital.
Fortunately, a number of steps can reduce the suffering, Dr. Marcus said. Since pollen is in general a morning phenomenon — it settles with the dew overnight and is closer to the ground in the morning, and then dissipates as the day wears on — patients with allergies are better off avoiding morning runs and errands and shifting those activities toward the afternoon hours. Outdoor exercise in particular should be moved later in the day, since a run or bike ride in the morning will cause deeper and more rapid breathing, which leads to more pollen ingestion.
Many people wait until their symptoms start acting up before taking allergy medications. But on days when pollen counts are likely to be high, try being proactive and taking it beforehand, Dr. Marcus said. “Take it as a preventative measure rather than trying to play catch-up with your symptoms,” he said.
Experts also recommend washing your hair before going to bed, since pollen attaches to hair especially easily. Most important is to find out what in particular sets off your allergies with an allergy skin test, which can identify the precise offenders – ragweed, dander or pollen, for example – that trigger your symptoms. In those with severe symptoms, allergy shots may be the solution.