No, your (itchy, red) eyes are not deceiving you — allergy season is getting worse, and climate change is to blame.
Pollen counts are already higher than they’ve ever been, and not only will they increase, but the season will get longer as well, experts say.
Dr. Shahnaz Fatteh, an allergist and medical director of Asthma Allergy Care Center of Florida, has been seeing increases of both adult and pediatric patients in recent years, describing the effects of pollen as a “significant burden on health.”
“I have been watching the pollen increase over the past decade,” she said. “We see it in patient care.”
About 40% of children and 30% of adults in the U.S. suffer from seasonal allergies, Fatteh said, describing patients who in the past experienced mild symptoms and are now complaining of more intense symptoms that they are suffering from longer.
The symptoms include sniffling, congestion and post nasal drip, which can then lead to cough, any type of viral exposure, sinus infections and ear infections, Fatteh said.
“It does affect people more than just sneezing and itching,” she said, noting the economic burden as well as people take sick days to care for themselves or their children.
Researchers recently found that pollen seasons are starting about 20 days earlier than they used to, William Anderegg, assistant professor of ecology at the University of Utah’s School of Biological Science, told ABC News.
In addition, there is 20% more pollen in the air right now than there was in the 1990s, Anderegg said. By 2040, pollen counts are expected to double from what they were in 2000, Fatteh added.
There is also evidence to suggest that the pollen itself is more allergenic, said Amir Sapkota, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health who specializes in how climate change affects human health.
“This trend will continue into the foreseeable future,” Sapkota told ABC News. “This is only going to get worse. If you happen to be somebody suffering from allergies, this is not a good thing.”
Human-caused climate change is responsible for more than 50% of the long-term trend of pollen season getting longer and pollen counts getting higher, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, co-authored by Anderegg, found.
“We all see it in our daily life,” Sapkota said. “When the winter temperatures are warmer, the tulips start to bloom early. The trees start to bloom early. We have noticed that.”
The study found that of the three seasonal pollen irritants — trees, grasses and weeds — trees saw the most increase in pollen.
This explains the recent uptick in symptoms, as tree pollen is a major source of springtime allergies, Fatteh said.
Fatteh also warned that poison ivy growth is increasing due to climate change, which could pose a problem for people seeking outdoor leisure as a respite from a winter spent in pandemic mode.
To alleviate allergy symptoms, Fatteh suggested taking preventative measures such as keeping windows closed, changing AC filters and using air purifiers. She also recommended wearing a hat and sunglasses when going outside to keep pollen off of hair and eyelashes.
Fatteh also emphasized that it’s important for people to be aware of the steps they can take to reduce waste and improve the environment.
Sapkota echoed that sentiment, stating that simple actions, such as choosing a battery-fueled car or switching from beef to chicken, can make an impact when done on a collective level.
“I think we all have a role to play,” he said. “Every bit makes a difference.”