Do Harsh Winters Mean Worse Allergies?

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

April 9, 2015 -- Spring is finally here, and with it comes tree pollen. For people with allergies, that could spell misery. But despite the harsh winter in some parts of the country, the sniffly, sneezy grief may not be any worse than usual.

"I would say it will be an average allergy season, based on what we can predict," says Kraig Jacobson, MD, who chairs the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's Aerobiology Committee.

But pollen predictions are a guessing game, Jacobson and other allergists say.

"Unfortunately, we really can't say what will happen," says Sherry Farzan, MD, an allergist who practices at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. "Last year, everyone was thinking that the polar vortex would result in a spring pollen vortex. It may have been worse than usual, but it wasn't as bad as we predicted. For this year, only time will tell."

What we do know is that weather has a big impact on pollen counts. Rain often eases allergy symptoms for a little while. While rain falls, most pollen can't be carried on the breeze.

On the other hand, the more rain and snow we get in winter and autumn, the more pollen the trees will likely make come spring, since moisture spurs pollen production, Jacobson says.

As winter temperatures turn milder, pollen begins to spread, and allergy symptoms start to appear. The timing of allergy season depends in part on the temperature, as warmer winters often result in trees giving off pollen earlier. According to Jacobson, that's what's happening in Oregon and other parts of the Pacific Northwest this year.

"Pollen becomes a problem as the weather becomes drier and warmer," says Stanley Fineman, MD, of Atlanta Allergy and Asthma. Fineman believes that in parts of the country hit hard by winter snow and rain, including the Northeast and Southeast, the trees have likely been primed to shed a lot of pollen.

Still, that doesn't mean people with allergies should assume the worst, he says.

Pollen counts depend on other things in the environment, Farzan says. In rural areas with more trees, for example, residents can expect higher counts than in less tree-dense regions. Mountainous areas generally have lower pollen counts, as do coastal areas, where the wind often carries the pollen out to sea.

Some parts of the country are already reporting high or very high concentrations of tree pollen, according to the National Allergy Bureau. On April 9, oak, walnut, and mulberry trees were the top three culprits in and around Austin, Texas, along with some grass pollen. Oak, mulberry, and sycamore trees were spreading large amounts of pollen in the Oklahoma City area.

Much of the southern part of the country was facing high pollen counts, including areas in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Kentucky.

In many areas, though, allergy season may be slightly delayed due to the winter weather.

"One exception is the Pacific Northwest, where allergy season is early because of the very mild winter we had," says Jacobson, who practices in Eugene, OR. Meanwhile, people in the parts of California affected by drought should have less-severe allergies, because pollen counts are expected to be lower than usual.

Whatever the outcome, tree pollen is only part of the problem. Grass pollen follows on its heels in early summer and is already beginning to cause problems in some places. Then comes ragweed in much of the U.S. east of the Rockies, Jacobson says. Weed pollen will last until the first freeze in October.

"It's way too early to say how bad that will be this year," he says.

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SOURCES: Sherry Farzan, MD, allergist, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Great Neck, New York. Stanley Fineman, MD, allergist, Atlanta Allergy and Asthma, Atlanta, Georgia. Kraig Jacobson, allergist, chair, aerobiology committee, AAAAI, and Oregon Allergy Associates, Eugene, Oregon.

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