Sneeze. Itchy eyes. Car windshields covered in yellow-green buildup.
These are the signs of spring that allergy sufferers in New England (including this reporter) greet with disdain. Although they herald the triumphant return of our local plant life, these gifts are more like lumps of coal.
We are at the start of pollen season here in the northeast, with most trees still as bare as they have been for months. But there’s actually tree pollen already flying through the air here in Massachusetts – courtesy of Mid-Atlantic and South. That’s according to Dr. Frederic Little, an allergy specialist at Boston Medical Center who also directs the allergy training program at Boston University School of Medicine.
While it’s a little too early to track pollen counts in Massachusetts in any meaningful way, it does point to warmer states like Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina where tree pollen season (the main responsible for most spring allergies) is ongoing. As the trees in these locations burst open, they release microscopic pollen which then heads northeast via the jet stream.
“People with tree allergies will be confused at times, as our trees are still bare here in the New England area – there may even be snow on the ground – and they are starting to show allergy symptoms,” said said Little, the addition of these symptoms is indeed manifesting in some in our area.
Things will unfortunately only get worse from here as the tree pollen peak approaches between late April and late May. With that in mind, we asked Little for some tips for dealing with the season:
Be on the defensive: limit pollen indoors
Despite all the efforts of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are going out. But with tree pollen flying around virtually everywhere — even in urban areas that tend to have fewer trees — coming into contact with pollen is also inevitable.
Every time you step outside, “there will be tree pollens that will get on your clothes and you will bring those pollens into the house,” Little said.
There are common sense steps you can take to protect yourself, Little said — beyond simply limiting time outdoors as soon as warmer weather returns.
The first is probably a given, but it helps keep your windows closed as much as possible. You can also wash your face after you get home. And for even more reassurance, you can change clothes in a separate room when you come back inside and designate “indoor clothes” versus “outdoor clothes,” Little said.
Air conditioners can also help keep pesky pollen away.
“They tend to dehumidify the air a bit,” Little said. “Sometimes high humidity can be more of a problem for people with severe allergies, as well as people with associated lung conditions like asthma or [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]where the heavy, humid air can add further discomfort.”
Air conditioning not only helps dehumidify the air, but also filters it, Little said — but you’ll want to change or at least clean these components regularly. (And be sure to use an energy-efficient model!)
Another use for this reserve of masks?
Speaking of filtration, Little said some of his allergy patients have reported that the pandemic has given them an additional spring benefit: protection with a mask.
“It turns out that last year, when masks were very common, people found that their allergies were a little less [severe] — even though they weren’t high-quality industrial and KN95 masks,” Little said. “Even people wearing surgical masks sometimes felt like there was a bit of filtering.
While he said it’s true that a mask can offer at least some added protection against airborne pollen, Little said he doesn’t recommend masking outdoors just for allergies.
The border between allergies and COVID
As an allergy clinician who has also treated COVID patients in the intensive care unit at Boston Medical Center, Little said he has grown accustomed to questions — even from friends and acquaintances — to find out if the allergy-like symptoms suggested something more serious.
“I can assure you that there have been thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of home antigen tests for COVID that have been burned with people waking up in the morning with a scratchy throat, a bit runny nose and have this question, ‘Oh, my God, is that it?’ “Little said.
Despite some overlap, Little said there are specific signs you can watch out for to hopefully stop yourself from spiraling.
“It’s quite rare to have a fever with the onset of allergy symptoms during the season,” he said. “And also, some people with COVID will tend to have a lot more fatigue. People with allergies may have some fatigue. But if people really feel completely exhausted, even if they’re not very sick, that would suggest that achieving that a home COVID test might be the right idea.”
CDC Adds Body Aches and Loss of Taste or Smell are generally not related to allergies Is.
If in doubt, it may be worth taking a test for added peace of mind, Little said. Because the last thing we want to do is endanger everyone’s health and safety or increase our own stress levels. (You can order free rapid tests from the U.S. government as long as your household hasn’t already received all eight kits allocated to it.)
Allergies in a warming world
Overall, we know that climate change will cause widespread environmental changes in the Northeast, from coastal flooding to tick activity. Unfortunately, allergy season is another item on that list.
Recent studies demonstrate that rising temperatures will lead to tree pollen seasons that start earlier and last longer. And not only that, they’ll be more intense, Little said.
“The total pollen count, in terms of the density of pollen released over the season, will increase,” he said. “Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide lead to increased plant growth, and increased plant growth means more vigorous plants – and what plants like to do is reproduce by releasing pollen and growing. “
Efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions will be crucial to the future of allergy seasons in New England, Little said. (Here are some tips if you’re looking to tackle climate change closer to home.)
Right now might be the perfect time to stock up on tissues and eye drops.