‘It’s bad right now:’ Early spring jumpstarts allergies, local doctor says

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Flowers are already releasing pollen -- a rite of spring that arrived early this year in the Historic Triangle. (file photo)
Trees are already releasing pollen — a rite of spring that arrived early this year in the Historic Triangle. (file photo)

At first, maybe you thought it was a cold. Sneezing. Sniffling. Runny eyes.

But even with the first day of spring roughly a week away, you could be suffering from seasonal allergies. Along with February’s warm temperatures and early spring blossoms, tree pollen emerged several weeks ahead of schedule in the Historic Triangle, according to Williamsburg allergist Dr. Stephen Shield, who has been hearing about it from patients.

“Oh, absolutely,” Shield said in a phone interview last week. “It’s bad right now.”

Shield’s patients are not alone. More than 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from allergies every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control; allergies are the country’s sixth leading cause of chronic illness, at an estimated annual cost of more than $18 billion. Allergies happen when the immune system overreacts to allergens, which can be anything from bee venom to tree, grass and weed pollen. 

Tree pollen usually emerges in the Historic Triangle in late February and peaks in April, according to Shield. It’s too soon to know what the rest of the season will bring, he added, but it will depend on the weather; last year March was warm, which leads to more pollen production, but April was cold and May was rainy, which keeps pollen production down.

According to Shield, this year’s tree pollen scenario can be seen as part of a broader trend, which includes a longer pollen season for trees and higher pollen counts for ragweed.

“Climate change, whatever you believe about it, is occurring in the pollen world,” he said.

So what can you do?

One way to manage symptoms is to keep an eye on pollen tracking and allergy-forecast tools, which are available by zip code on web sites such as weather.com and pollen.com. In addition, Shield’s colleagues at Allergy Partners of Richmond take and post daily pollen measurements here.

But don’t look for pollen readings from the state. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality does not track the pollen count, according to an email from spokesman Bill Hayden. (From roughly late February through mid-November, North Carolina’s Division of Air Quality takes daily measurements Monday through Friday and posts reports here.)

“It’s a very non-automated process, I’m afraid,” said Jerry Stenger, director of the climatology office at the University of Virginia, when asked about counting pollen. 

According to Rachel Maidl, media and membership communications manager for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, conducting a pollen count requires access to a lab, where samples can be examined under a microscope and identified.

“It’s very difficult,” Maidl said.

Even without specialized equipment, though, you can take a few basic steps to manage allergy symptoms. Shield refers to them as avoidance, medication and desensitization:

  • Avoid pollen by staying inside with the windows closed, keeping car windows rolled up, wearing a mask outside and showering quickly after you come in.
  • Medicate by taking antihistimines, using a nasal steroid spray and using antihistamine eye drops or anti-inflammatory eye drops.
  • And if those measures don’t work, think about desensitization: being tested by an allergist so you can find out what you’re allergic to and whether you want to try allergy injections, which introduce allergens into your body and slowly retrain the immune system’s response.

“People don’t have to suffer,” Shield said. 

WYDaily does not provide medical advice. You should check with your doctor before making decisions that could affect your health.

This story has been corrected to reflect the title of Rachel Maidl at the AAAAI.