Cape Codders who feel their seasonal allergies are getting worse every year are not alone. And they are not wrong.
Doctors and environmental health scientists say climate change is contributing to longer and more intense pollen seasons — and it’s a trend that shows no signs of abating.
Studies tracking pollen activity over decades show that warming trends have caused the pollen season to begin two to three weeks earlier in the northern United States than it did in the late 1970s and 1980s, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, director of the center. for climate change and global environment at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
“Pollen seasons start earlier and last longer,” says Dr. Lewis Ziska, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York.
The number of frost-free days is increasing, affecting plants from trees to ragweed, said Ziska, who has published research on pollen trends in the journal Lancet and the National Academy of Sciences.
The longer growing seasons have a notable impact on pollen trends in New England, which are more pronounced in Minnesota and the Dakotas, where the growing season has been extended by as much as three weeks, Ziska said.
“At the same time, the carbon dioxide in the air, which mainly comes from burning fossil fuels, causes allergenic plants to produce more pollen,” Bernstein said.
Looking to the future:Summit gets Cape students thinking about solutions to climate change
“Carbon dioxide can serve as fertilizer for plants. It’s a double whammy. The double whammy is a longer growing season with more pollen.”
Recently retired allergist Dr. Bruce Gordon of Yarmouthport has witnessed the impact of the extended allergy season on both patients and himself.
“I have been in practice for 40 years. The past decade has been a really noticeable change in the intensity and severity of allergies,” he said. “Each year it’s a little bit worse than the year before.”
“I have allergies myself,” said Gordon, who served as staff surgeon and chief ENT at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis.
“I get a dripping nose. I get itchy eyes. I get a cough. Sometimes (pollen) causes mild asthma and I have to use an inhaler.
“This is our moment”:US Senator Elizabeth Warren visits Chatham
Mother Nature double dips
The longer growing season results in an amalgamation of the early spring tree pollen season and later grass pollen season, to the detriment of patients, Gordon said.
“This is when we start to see overlap,” says Dr. John Costa, an allergist at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth, who is also a physician at the Allergy and Asthma Associates offices in Buzzards Bay and Duxbury.
The overlap will continue for another two weeks, depending on weather conditions, Costa said.
Sunny, warm weather — also known as beach weather on Cape Cod — contributes to pollen load. Rain washes away the pollen, Costa said.
Mark Thurman, director of operations for YMCA Cape Cod, had hoped his seasonal allergies would ease with his recent move from a fertile valley in Albany, New York, to Barnstable County.
That’s not what happened.
“For me it’s worse because of the wind. It just blows everything around,” Thurman said.
“Wind is definitely a great disperser of pollen,” Ziska said.
Earlier this year:Mass. Senate hopes to pass climate resilience and offshore wind legislation by Earth Day
‘Sex for little money’
“I don’t want to be X-rated,” Ziska said. But all pollen is a version of plant sperm.
“It’s the male sperm.”
Plants make a lot of pollen and hope that some of it will reach the female flower. Wind helps, Ziska said. “It’s cheap sex.”
Walls of pollen move with weather fronts and are pushed outward as the weather gets cooler and wetter, Bernstein said.
On more stagnant days, when he rises early outside his Boston home, “You can actually see the pollen, and it’s breathtaking,” Bernstein said.
He means that literally and figuratively and advises people with asthma to check their pollen count daily.
Ziska, who has asthma, makes sure to have his rescue inhaler with him during high pollen days.
“If you start looking at the downstream health impacts, they can be quite significant,” Ziska said. “Breathing is a pretty fundamental aspect of life as we know it.”
When allergy sufferers inhale pollen, it triggers their immune systems to release histamine, a chemical WebMD.com compares to a club bouncer removing something unwanted—in this case, an allergen.
Opinion:Leaf blowers pose a threat to the environment and public health. This is why.
If the body overreacts, it can cause asthma and the lungs don’t get the oxygen they need, Ziska said.
Most vulnerable to high pollen counts are children and the elderly, he said.
In addition to histamine, pollen allergies trigger the release of other inflammatory substances that inflame the tissues of the eyes, nose and lungs, Costa said.
People with mild allergies may find that taking over-the-counter antihistamines will relieve all of their symptoms, he said.
This class of antihistamine includes Zyrtec, Allegra and Claritin, according to WebMD.
People with moderate to severe seasonal allergies may need to bolster their defenses by adding anti-inflammatory medications, including nasal sprays Flonase and Nasacort, also available over the counter, Costa said.
He advises against using Benadryl because it has many side effects.
“I tell my patients, ‘Benadryl is so last century.'”
The nasal anti-inflammatory sprays work better for nasal obstruction than antihistamines, said Dr. John Oppenheimer, clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
He said it’s best for people to start taking medications — whether antihistamines, nasal sprays, or both — a few weeks before their seasonal allergies start.
“Nobody wants to have complaints for a week during the best time of the year.”
Early treatment can help prevent allergy-related asthma attacks and sinus infections, which occur when bacteria in the sinuses become clogged due to nasal blockages that reduce mucus flow, Oppenheimer said.
“I can’t tell you how many people I see who have their asthma flares” because of seasonal allergies, he said.
If people don’t find complete relief with antihistamines and anti-inflammatories, they should talk to their doctor about getting allergy shots, Gordon said.
Beyond antihistamines and anti-inflammatories
“If you don’t do well with that, you need something else, you need something more,” he said.
Gordon said allergy shots appear to be particularly effective at controlling allergy-related fatigue.
Even with over-the-counter medications, it’s best to talk to a doctor about getting aggravating allergy symptoms under control, Oppenheimer said.
“It should be precision medicine based on you and your specific symptoms,” he said.
People who didn’t anticipate allergy season “are not doomed,” Costa said. He said it’s worth starting treatment now, even if it will take several days to get relief.
Allergy sufferers can also take other steps to limit pollen exposure, from using saline nasal rinses to closing windows and turning on the AC, doctors said.
Vacuuming carpets and washing bedding removes pollen from the environment, as does washing clothes and showering after spending time outdoors.
Hair is a pollen trap, so it makes sense to wash it before it dumps a load of allergens on the pillow at night, especially for people who spent the afternoon outside or working in the garden, Costa said.
Pollen accumulates on people “just like you see it accumulating on the hood of your car,” he said.
“Masking can help,” Ziska said.
Enjoy a breath of fresh air by the ocean
While the end of the tree pollen season, in which oak, birch and pine can wreak havoc on people’s respiratory symptoms, will bring some relief in the coming weeks — allowing grass pollen to pack their punch alone and not at the same time — experts say climate change will continue for pollen season .
“If you look at the long-term climate, it gets worse,” Ziska said.
Thurman said he manages his symptoms with daily medications — and by going to the beach when he can.
He said he wondered why the beach provided such relief for his allergy symptoms, until a friend pointed out that the ocean-driven wind that sweeps over the sand is pollen-free.
“The breeze that comes from the ocean does not come from the land.”
Curious Cape Cod, page A3: Join Eric Williams on a pine pollen-free walk.