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Many people love the beauty that comes with spring, but for millions of Canadians, it also means the start of allergy season — and living with constant sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes.
If it feels like your allergies are getting more intense every year, experts say you can expect that to continue.
Studies show pollen seasons are getting longer and more severe across the U.S. and Canada. The reason: climate change.
Researchers who measured pollen trends across North America between 1990 to 2018 found a 21 per cent increase in pollen levels. If that’s not bad enough, they say climate-driven pollen trends are likely to “further exacerbate respiratory health impacts in coming decades.”
“The overall trends are that as things get warmer that plants will grow probably for a longer amount of time and possibly in areas where you traditionally may not see them,” Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist clinical immunologist at McMaster University, tells Yahoo Canada.
That’s why Waserman says it’s important for anyone who suffers from allergies to pay attention to their symptoms and get help when it’s needed.
What causes seasonal allergies?
Seasonal allergies are impacted by pollen, a fine powder produced by trees, flowers, grasses and weeds to fertilize other plants of the same species.
Normally, our immune system fights off illnesses it deems harmful, but for people with pollen allergies the immune system mistakenly sees pollen as a “dangerous intruder.” As a result, an allergic reaction occurs.
The exact timing of an allergen season depends on local climate, geographic location and weather.
In Canada, tree pollen typically starts at the end of March and lasts until May. Next up is grass pollen, which appears in late spring or early summer, followed by weed pollen in late summer and fall.
The severity of an allergy season is hard to determine ahead of time, and according to Dr. Anne Ellis, allergy seasons are not as “predictable as they used to be.”
The professor of medicine and chair of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Queen’s University says that’s a result of shifting seasons. With warming temperatures, certain plants are blooming earlier and it’s causing an overlap in pollen seasons.
“Patients who suffer from both tree allergy and grass allergy, which is the majority, pretty quickly get hit with a double whammy,” Ellis tells Yahoo Canada.
Is it allergies or COVID-19?
With COVID-19 and seasonal allergies being around at the same time, it can be a confusing time for a lot of people when they get a runny nose or cough. However, according to Yale Medicine, there are some key differences to look out for.
Seasonal allergies usually cause itchy or watery eyes and sneezing, while COVID-19 is “characterized by fever and chills, muscle and body aches, new loss of taste and smell, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.”
“Don’t make the assumption that it’s one or the other," Waserman advises. "If you’re not sure you need to speak to your doctor."
Remedies and treatments for seasonal allergies
Anyone who is impacted by seasonal allergies, which in Canada is between 20 to 25 per cent of the population, knows how miserable they can make you feel. While you can’t bypass seasonal allergies altogether, there are ways to reduce symptoms.
Over-the-counter antihistamines are a common go-to for people with allergies. Just make sure to read the label and choose the non-sedating options to avoid feeling drowsy. You can also get antihistamines in a nasal spray, but you will need a prescription first.
Another option is a nasal corticosteroid, which is sprayed into the nose to treat inflammation and reduce symptoms.
If over-the-counter medications don’t work, Ellis stresses the importance of getting medical help and seeing an allergist who can get you on an immunotherapy regimen. Immunotherapy can include allergy shots or oral tablets and Ellis says it provides “life-changing relief” for people who have been suffering for years.
“It’ll actually change your underlying allergies so that you no longer just keep taking medications to cover up the symptoms, but you’re actually getting to the root of the problem,” she explains.
Aside from medications, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has the following recommendations:
Limit outdoor activities when pollen counts are high
Keep windows closed during peak pollen times
Use central air conditioning or air cleaners in your home
Wear sunglasses and a hat when going outdoors to prevent pollen from getting in your eyes and hair
Change and wash clothes worn outside
Overall, allergies can have a serious impact on a person's life, and both Waserman and Ellis agree that no one should hesitate when it comes to getting help.
"The over-the-counter stuff is very easy to get, but speak to your family doctor, ask to see an allergist," Waserman says. "Do not suffer in silence."