(ABC4) – After a winter full of quarantines and social distancing, the coming of spring has seemed to especially herald in new hope this year.
And though the newly blossoming trees and plants are beautiful, they can bring with them pollen and allergy season.
According to Dr. Aaron Kobernick, an allergist with University of Utah Health, allergies are “a misdirected immune response to something that really is innocuous,” like dander, pollen, mold, and for some people, food.
“Our body for whatever reason perceives that pollen is some sort of invader and starts to mount a reaction against it,” he explains.
But what can we expect from this year’s allergy season following a dry winter and current drought conditions?
Kobernick says a bad allergy season is often characterized by a few different things: plenty of water and snowmelt, plenty of rain, and the combination of enough water plus some hot, dry days and wind.
“Rainy days you won’t see a lot of allergens because the rain really tamps down the pollen… but wind has to be there to disperse that pollen and make people have a problem with it,” he shares. “Your perfect storm is gonna be plenty of snowmelt plus wind and warmth and the absence of a hard freeze once that warmup starts.”
But even though the past winter was dry, Kobernick says he thinks there has been enough rainfall to expect at least a moderate allergy season. “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be a bad allergy season,” he tells ABC4.
“The first thing we saw pollinate this year was Elm, and the pollen counts got really high. So the early indication is that there’s still enough water for the plants to grow, and as long as they’re going to grow, they’re going to pollinate,” Kobernick says. “If there’s enough water for the plants to live, their primary function is reproduction, so they’re going to devote all of that water and energy into pollination. It won’t be a low pollen year.”
In the valley, people still water their yards, and as long as people do that, grass pollen will be present, he states.
In the case of a warm winter, like the current one, allergy season can begin as early as late January or early February, Dr. Libby Kelly, Allergist with Intermountain Healthcare, tells ABC4.
She says this time of year, it is tree pollens that cause allergies, and the first trees to pollinate are Cedar and Juniper, shortly followed by the Elm tree. Currently, Utah is seeing pollen from the Box Elder tree, she states.
“When we have a long, cold winter, the pollens can be delayed, but then sometimes they come out really strong if we have a lot of water and it goes from cold to hot suddenly in April,” she says. “Sometimes we have a big burst of all the trees all at the same time, causing a large burst of pollen. Other times the pollen season is more drawn out and people feel worse simply because it’s going on and on.”
Another factor that can create conditions for a ‘bad’ allergy season are windy days because tree pollens are very light and airborne, she says.
“So when it’s blowing straight into your face and eyes, it’s particularly bothersome.”
Like Kobernick, Dr. Kelly says that the pollen started early this year and had very high counts a couple of weeks ago.
“… but it did drop when we had a bit of snow maybe two weekends ago, and with the heat, they were coming back up late last week and into the weekend but they’ll drop again today (Tuesday) until it starts to warm up again.
Dr. Kelly also says she doesn’t think Utah’s current drought indicates a low pollen season.
“I’m guessing it will be moderate, but it changes so fast. As soon as we get the right combination of moisture and warmth, the high heat of the summer will kill off the grasses and make them pollinate much less. But between now and then, if we get a lot of water, the grasses are going to grow rapidly and cause a lot more pollen, so I’m guessing it’s going to be about average because we are down on water for the year, but it can turn around depending on how much water we get through April,” she explains.
With a moderate allergy season likely in-store, the allergists offer some advice for managing seasonal allergies.
Tips for managing seasonal allergies
Dr. Kobernick says there are two main ways to manage allergies – avoiding allergens by staying inside or taking medicine over the counter.
For those who choose to go outside, he suggests showering and changing clothes upon coming indoors to get the pollen off. He also recommends talking to a doctor about which medications are right to take and talking to an allergist if you still need help.
According to Dr. Kelly, over-the-counter medications are pretty effective in treating allergies. She recommends taking non-sedating antihistamines. There are several generic brands that are equally helpful and inexpensive, she states.
In addition, she says that over-the-counter eye drops and cold compresses can be helpful.
Nasal steroid sprays can be even more effective than antihistamines, but they need to be used properly and as directed in order to prevent what can be permanent damage to the nose, Dr. Kelly explains.
Have pets at home? Dr. Kelly says if people are already allergic to their pets, this can prime immune system response to outdoor pollen to be “quite exaggerated.”
“Last year was pretty intense because all of a sudden everybody was working from home,” she says.
To check on current pollen counts for Utah, visit Intermountain Allergy and Asthma.