Spring Pollen Allergies

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

March 27, 2014 -- A bitterly cold winter followed by a sudden spring warm-up might spell massive misery if you have allergies.

"When pollen has been held up by cold weather, you can get a flood of pollen as the weather warms up," says allergy researcher Kraig Jacobson, MD. "And that may indeed be happening now."

Allergy season is already well underway in parts of the Midwest, where many states have experienced some of the most brutal winters in history. Reports of extremely high pollen counts are already coming in from Kansas and Oklahoma, where one expert predicts a "super bloom" of pollen as temperatures rise suddenly.

Forecasts, clearly, are not one-size-fits-all. How bad the allergy season will be depends on where you are.

"Things are very, very regional because of weather and what grows there," says Jacobson, a pollen counter for the National Allergy Bureau.

Parts of Ohio and Missouri have moderate pollen counts so far, while Chicago and Minneapolis have yet to tally any pollen this year.

In the Northeast, a late storm brought more snow, not pollen. If temperatures rise quickly after the winter blast, that region could be in for a bad allergy season. In California and neighboring states, pollen counts are low because of drought. The rest of the country, on the other hand, has had plenty of moisture to produce high levels of pollen.

Jacobson predicts that New Orleans and coastal areas will be particularly hard hit because of their many live oaks, a common variety of oak tree.

In parts of Texas, cedars are expected to cause a lot of grief -- make that a lot more grief. Shortly after the mountain cedar pollen season began in late December, Austin and San Antonio measured pollen counts in the thousands, news reports said. Jacobson says there probably will be more of the same from other types of cedar trees now that it's spring.

You can see what WebMD users are reporting in their states here.

What to Expect?

If things are bad in your part of the country in March, will they get worse? That's hard to say.

"Predicting pollen is like predicting the weather," Jacobson says. "There's a lot of variability, and you can have sudden changes."

There's also a lot of variety when it comes to pollen providers. Some trees pollinate for a couple of weeks in early spring, while others pollinate a little later. Grass pollen follows tree pollen in April, May, and June. Ragweed and other weed pollens come next, to ruin late summer and early autumn.

Cold or Allergy?

It's easy to confuse allergy symptoms with those of a cold, says Luz M. Fonacier, MD, chief allergist at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, NY. Just look at the symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Postnasal drip
  • Itchiness in the nose and throat
  • Swollen, watery, itchy eyes

How do you know the difference? If your symptoms don't clear up in a week or so, it's likely your stuffy nose and sneezing can be traced to allergies, Fonacier says. At that point, she recommends seeing an allergist to find out just what you're allergic to. And if you have severe allergies, pollen can trigger asthma attacks.

"Once you know what it is, you can avoid it, and avoidance is the most important thing," she says.

Allergy Relief

Here are Fonacier's tips for periods of high pollen:

  • Stay indoors as much as possible.
  • Don't mow the lawn or do other outdoor work.
  • If you have to go out, take a shower when you come back in.
  • Wear a mask when you have to be outside.

Over-the-counter and prescription medicines can be used to relieve your symptoms. But, Fonacier says, it's important to start taking those medications before allergy season begins.

"You're better off preventing the symptoms from coming than trying to take care of them once they're already there," she says. "Take your medication as prescribed, take it early, and take it regularly."

Finally, you may need to consider allergy shots, which can combat the specific allergens that trouble you. At first, you'll get increasingly potent shots once or twice a week. Once you reach an effective dose, you can expect shots every 2 to 4 weeks.

The Long-term Outlook

Pollen counts may grow even higher in coming years, Fonacier says. "It's getting worse as a result of global warming. It's slowly but steadily increasing, as is the number of people with allergies."

There is a bright spot, though, for some people with allergies: Relief will likely come in your 50s or 60s. "You hear a lot of people say, 'I had bad allergies, but I grew out of them,'" Jacobson says.

In general, she says, you'll have unpleasant symptoms over a number of decades, from your teen years through your 40s. You'll probably have the most discomfort in your 20s.

And if you're thinking about moving to get away from allergies, think again. Allergists seldom recommend it, because you might escape one allergy only to develop another one in a new area.

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SOURCES: Kraig Jacobson, MD, medical director, Allergy and Asthma Research Group, Oregon Allergy Associates, Eugene. Luz Fonacier, MD, head, allergy section, Division of Rheumatology & Immunology, Winthrop-University Hospital, Mineola, NY. San Antonio News-Express: "Cedar and allergy symptoms hit highest levels of the season." Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Itchy eyes? Sneezing? Blame the dreaded mountain cedar." Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Pollen and Mold Counts," "What are the symptoms for hay fever?" American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Allergy Shots (Immunology)," "How do allergy shots work?" National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Weather Channel.

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