Those sneezes and sniffles you’ve had lately may not be a cold. You could be having an allergy attack.
Yes, it’s still February, but the unseasonably warm weather has been rousing the region’s trees to bloom and start producing pollen, loads of pollen.
The pollen count at Children’s Mercy Hospital, which does the measurements locally, was in the “high” range on Friday — 558 grains per cubic meter of air.
“For any tree pollen season, that can be as high as it usually gets,” said Children’s Mercy allergist Jay Portnoy.
“It’s come early, and I expect it’s going to be abundant.”
Portnoy said tree pollen season typically waits for early March, but pollen counts this year have been rising for a couple of weeks already.
Elms, the main source of pollen right now, are about two weeks early. Maples are a month or more ahead of schedule.
Premature pollen is filling the air in many parts of the country this winter, from Maryland to southern Ohio to northern California.
In South Carolina, a warm spell had pollen bursting from trees in January. Allergy sufferers in Atlanta, who usually start having problems in March, started complaining to their doctors early this month.
Many parents have been bringing their kids to Children’s Mercy for what they think are colds and are being told their children have hay fever, Portnoy said.
“They’re puzzled. You think in February it’s going to be a common cold,” Portnoy said.
There are ways to tell the difference between the two, Portnoy said. A simple cold goes away in a week or two, but allergies hang around. Colds may come with a low fever and sore throat. Allergies give eyes, noses and throats an itchy, scratchy feeling.
The early and plentiful tree pollen we’re having now is part of a long-term trend, Portnoy said. He and other Children’s Mercy researchers recently analyzed their data from 1997 through 2011 and found that most kinds of trees in the region have been pollinating earlier and producing progressively larger amounts of pollen over the years. And even though tree pollen seasons are starting earlier, they’re lasting until their usual close in mid-April.
Portnoy said allergy sufferers could still be saved this winter by a hard freeze — about 25 degrees or colder — lasting for at least a couple of days that shuts down pollination. The last time that kind of relief came was in March 2006.
But the allergic shouldn’t get their hopes up too high. Ragweed season is due in August. And a second study by Portnoy and his research team found that ragweed pollen levels have been rising steadily, too.