Itchy eyes? Sneezing? When spring comes around, many of us know the symptoms well.
For more than 20 years, physicians at Children’s Mercy Hospital have used a machine on the roof to collect daily pollen and mold counts to better understand allergens on a day-to-day basis.
But scientists have found something else over time: Pollen and mold counts are getting higher and lasting longer than they used to. Not just in Kansas City, but across North America.
For allergy sufferers, their findings aren’t likely a surprise.
The increase has led to worsening symptoms for many patients, said Jay Portnoy, a pediatric allergist at Children’s Mercy and professor at UMKC School of Medicine.
“Now, in addition to sneezing, we’re seeing intense problems with eyes — terribly itchy eyes,” he said.
They’re also seeing more people with oral allergies, in which foods such as melons, apples and carrots have a cross reaction with pollen, Portnoy said.
“Their mouth will become itchy and sensitized because of the pollen,” he said. “In Kansas City, when we started collecting the data, it was unusual for the pollen count to get over 1,000 (particles per cubic meter). Now it’s pretty routine to get up to 8,000. We never saw that before.
“It’s not a hoax. It’s actually happening. It’s not something to panic about or get anxious about, but it’s causing more disease and it’s something to be aware of. Anything to stop the progression of climate change would be helpful, but that’s politics, and I won’t go there."
One part of climate change leading to worsening allergies is the prolonged pollen season.
Starting about 30 years ago, the growing season in general around the Northern Hemisphere “rather abruptly changed to a new normal,” with earlier springs and later falls, said Mark Schwartz, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geographer.
In the 48 contiguous states, 2012 was the earliest growing season on record until it was edged out by 2017, he said.
Across the U.S., fall’s first frost is happening about nine days on average later since 30 years ago, while the last frost of spring is happening almost four days earlier, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That means the growing season in between is nearly two weeks longer. And some of the stuff that’s growing is making us sneeze and suffer.
High ragweed days across America swelled from 1990 to 2016, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Lewis Ziska.
In Kansas City, where Children’s Mercy helped participate in Ziska’s study, the number of high pollen days jumped from 58 to 81.
“Allergies and asthma are on the rise. Climate change isn’t the only reason, but it contributes,” said Howard Frumkin, former environmental health chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now at the Wellcome Trust in London. Frumkin said ragweed and poison ivy trigger more powerful allergic reactions with higher carbon dioxide levels.
So what are allergy sufferers to do?
Most people will try to tough it out with more over-the-counter medications, eye drops and nasal sprays, Portnoy said.
They may feel like antihistamines aren’t as effective as they used to be, but it’s really just a case of the pollen or mold counts being higher that day, he said.
If the symptoms last months and can’t be controlled, it’s time to start looking at alternatives, Portnoy said. Children’s Mercy is doing more allergy shots and testing than ever before.
“I call it job security,” Portnoy said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.