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Why A Mild Winter Means a Worse Allergy Season

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A teenage girl with allergies blowing her nose on a summer day

A mild winter has contributed to another severe allergy season, as pollen is circulating earlier and there’s more of it in the air.

While allergy sufferers seek to tame their symptoms, there is hope with the latest, targeted treatments. Princess Ogbogu, MD, division chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, explains what’s happening and what patients can do.

Q. Why Have Allergy Seasons Become Worse?

A. We’ve seen this trend over the last 20 or 30 years, as winters have gotten progressively milder. That leads to earlier pollen seasons and more robust pollen seasons. As the earth has become warmer, there’s also more carbon dioxide, which increases the amount of pollen. It’s a better climate for pollen to flourish.

Northeast Ohio and the Great Lakes region is a hot spot for spring tree pollen. It’s been significant this year. People are definitely suffering and a lot of patients are coming in seeking relief.

Q. How Early in the Season Does it Start?

People start feeling symptoms even before it gets warm outside. Once you see the trees start to bud, the pollen is circulating. Since the start of April or so, we’ve seen a significant increase in pollen and allergy symptoms.

It’s not just affecting people with the classic environmental allergies such as itchy eyes, runny noses and sneezing. We’ve also seen more asthma. For a lot of people, the environmental allergies really drive asthma.

Q. Are Allergies More Severe and More Prevalent?

A. Allergy symptoms have become more severe. It goes along with the increased pollen burden and pollen exposure. We’re seeing patients sometimes requiring a lot more medication than they would have in the past because of the increase in pollen.

And it’s not just environmental allergies that are increasing. Food allergies and allergies in general are on the rise too. There are lots of theories about why this is happening. The most popular theory is the hygiene hypothesis – that exposure to certain germs early in life stimulates the immune system and a lack of exposure may contribute to allergic reactions.

But it’s likely there are environmental triggers too. Climate change has probably had an impact on our immune systems and how we react to the environment. There are very complex reasons why allergies are becoming more common.

Q. How Have Treatments Evolved?

A. If people have a lot of symptoms, we have various types of immunotherapies. The landscape has changed pretty significantly around what we can do about our immune responses to allergens.

Now we have targeted therapeutics and biologic medications that target the immune pathways that trigger allergies. These medications have been one of the more promising changes we’ve seen in the field over the last five years or so.

The treatments are not necessarily just for environmental allergies. If someone has asthma that’s triggered by their environmental allergies, newer therapies can be quite effective for both. And they are available for adults and children.

These new therapies are gamechangers for patients because they’re changing your immune response, so you don’t develop full-blown allergies.

Q. Should I See a Specialist for My Allergies?

A. If you’re suffering from allergies that affect your ability to function, you should see a board-certified allergist who can figure out what you’re allergic to, minimize your allergies, and if your treatments aren’t working, help find other treatments that are available.

Other Tips

  • Check the local pollen counts daily and know when pollen levels are highest. UH allergists contribute to the Pollen Line, a service of The Academy of Medicine of Cleveland & Northern Ohio.
  • If you know when your symptoms typically begin, start medications a couple weeks earlier.
  • Plan for travel, keeping in mind regional variations. Allergens affect people at different times, depending on location and weather conditions. Pollen forecasts differ region to region.
  • Keep windows closed as much as possible during pollen season. Turn on air conditioning at home and in the car where available.
  • After spending time outdoors, remove shoes and clothing, shower and wash hair.
  • Don’t hang laundry outside to dry.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses outside when pollen levels are high.

Related Links

The nationally recognized experts at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Pediatric Allergy and Immunology Division offer comprehensive testing and the latest treatments for conditions ranging from common allergies and asthma to complex immunological disorders.