The unseasonably warm spring weather that caused ski resorts to close early this year may be contributing to a worse-than-usual allergy season, now officially in its peak.
Drought periods sometimes mean an easier ride for allergy sufferers, since fewer problematic plants and trees will grow in a water shortage. But warm, dry weather – especially when combined with a strong breeze – can allow whatever pollen is present to come out earlier, and with a vengeance.
Sacramento, often referred to with affection as the “City of Trees”, has a high concentration of pollen-producing heavyweights, including oak, sycamore and mulberry trees, all of which do the bulk of their business in March and April, said Dr. Troy Scribner, an allergy specialist with Kaiser Permanente in Roseville.
“With the drought, there’s an extra incentive to pollinate early,” he said. “In a typical scenario, the trees wait for the water to slow down – that’s a trigger to pollinate. The other is the warm weather.”
A late-March heat wave set a Sacramento record on March 29 this year. The mercury hit 84 degrees that day, the highest since 2002. Daytime temperatures have since leveled into the 70s, but still remain higher than the average for this time of year, which the National Weather Service estimates at 67 degrees. Early spring warm spells have been associated with California’s historic drought for the past few years.
The drought has thrown off the allergy season timeline, said Dr. Ron Brown, allergist with Sutter Medical Group. It typically begins in March, peaks in May and putters out by late June. But this year, with trees starting to pollinate in February and grass pollination already underway, we’re already in the thick of the peak, which should last another six weeks or so, he said.
Due to the early start, the season may end ahead of schedule. In the meantime, allergy sufferers should treat symptoms with antihistamines, nasal sprays, shots or more intense treatment if needed. Brown recommends avoiding the outdoors during the early hours, when pollen counts are the highest, and washing skin and clothing regularly.
“With the technology we have, there are very few people who cannot keep (allergies) controlled in the spring season, even those who want to be outdoors,” he said. “It’s always a shame when people associate the spring with misery.”
An estimated 20 percent of people suffer from allergies, symptoms of which include coughing, sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes. While many people live with mild allergies, more severe forms of the condition can trigger asthma. If symptoms intensify beyond discomfort, sufferers should see a physician, Brown said.
Global warming has resulted in higher and longer pollen seasons across the globe and has increased the earth’s total pollen load, according to Dr. Bradley Chipps, clinician and researcher at Capital Allergy & Respiratory Disease Center.
The change will be felt significantly in the Central Valley, Chipps said. Sacramento is one of the top 100 most challenging places to live with spring allergies, as ranked by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
“If you’re near the ocean where everything blows away, you’re great,” Chipps said. “And if you’re higher up you’re better off, too. But in this valley you’re kind of stuck.”
Jan Thornburg, who has been living in Sacramento for the last 41 years, said she developed severe allergies in the years after moving to the City of Trees. She received allergy shots for nine years to relieve symptoms, and now is able to get by with over-the-counter medication.
On Tuesday afternoon she was enjoying McKinley Park, but lamenting the persistent symptoms that struck her in March.
“Mine are killing me,” she said of her allergies. “It’s the wind. I’m sneezing my head off ... you can never have enough Kleenex.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.