When Niki Alpers, 24, of Boston, opened the door of the bakery where she works to bring in a shipment of treats last week, she noticed that all-too-familiar tingling sensation in her nose.
Then, the tingling turned into uncontrollable sneezing, itchy eyes and an unstoppable runny nose, she said.
"I had to take a break and go downstairs, get away from where I was," she said. "That pretty much signaled the beginning of spring allergies for me."
Alpers, who is allergic to pollen from trees, grass and ragweed, said she usually experiences one extreme reaction at the start of the season, then has to manage continuous sneezing and sniffling for the next few months.
"It's really frustrating," she said. "I really get agitated and annoyed by it."
Alpers is certainly not the only one who's bothered by allergic rhinitis -- the term that describes the symptoms you experience when you breathe in something to which you're allergic. There are more than 12 million annual doctor visits for allergic rhinitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The severity of symptoms, for most people, will vary from year to year, but some in the allergy community already forecast this season as a particularly sneezy one.
"I've been seeing many patients lately with complaints of allergies earlier than I expected this year," said Dr. Jordan Josephson, an otolarynologist and sinus specialist at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York. "And [symptoms], for some, have been worse than I expected."
Gerry Kress, senior executive at SDI Health LLC, a private company that runs the Web site pollen.com, predicts a tougher spring compared to the last two years.
Pollen Count Debate
But how can we tell whether a spring allergy season will be worse than any other before it happens?
There's no government system that monitors pollen production, so it's left up to private companies, such as SDI Health, to track pollen.
Severe weather changes, including flooding in the Midwest and snowstorms at the tail end of the winter season, contribute to worse allergy seasons, according to Kress. Because of the increased rain and snow in the Midwest and Northeast this year, more trees are budding and grass is growing -- meaning more pollen movement in those areas, he said.
Climate Change and the Pollen Effect
"It's largely due to global warming," said Kress. "Pollen is increasing and allergy symptoms, for many, are getting worse."
In 2005, SDI Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a study to find out how severe climate change affects pollination. Using a Rotorod, or a device with small rods that collects pollen in the air, the investigators found that the amount of pollen being produced by plants is increasing each year.
Increasing carbon dioxide emissions are fueling more tree and plant growth in the spring, said Kress, which may mean stronger allergies for some, and even new allergy symptoms for others.
"The seasons are going to get worse over time as this phenomenon continues," said Kress.
However, not all allergists are willing to predict a tough season this year. Dr. Joseph Costa, director of allergy services at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said even with pollen counters, there's really no way to tell whether a difficult allergy season is on the way.
"If we have a lot of rainy days, it'll knock the pollen down," said Costa. "On the other hand, if we have a lot of really warm and dry days, it can be horrible, but there's no way to tell."
In fact, Costa said for many allergy sufferers, the overall pollen count on a particular day may not be directly associated with allergic symptoms. Through a process called priming, even minor exposures to pollen toward the end of the season may result in a reaction.
"So really, it doesn't take a higher pollen count for some to feel worse symptoms," said Costa. "It could be less pollen than the last time they were exposed that will give them just as harsh of a reaction."
Where's the Relief?
Josephson said that, although the pollen count has increased, it may not mean that allergy sufferers will have to endure harsh symptoms. Staying indoors or using over-the-counter antihistimines may work for some, even on high-pollen days, he said.
He also suggested keeping windows closed, in your home and your car, changing home air filters and using nasal rinses to ease congestion.
However, there is a threshold that, once passed, should lead allergy sufferers to seek a doctor's advice for stronger treatments, Josephson said.
"You should do more for your symptoms when you feel fatigued, which can lead to not being productive at work," said Josephson. "[Allergists] have newer medicines to treat allergy and sinus problems, and there are combination therapies to get relief."
One of the worst things to do is to ignore allergy symptoms, said Josephson. If left untreated, he said, they can lead to more serious problems, such as chronic sinusitis or respiratory infections.
Alpers said she tackles her allergy symptoms as they come along. And after what she described as a long winter in New England, Alpers said regardless of the grim outlook this season, she won't allow her allergies to keep her inside.
"I look forward to spring, even though it's when I feel the worse and I know I'm going to be in for a nice allergy-filled experience," she said.
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