Another early start to allergy season: why they’re getting longer and worse

Allergy season is now in full swing, but for those who suffer from them, it’s been an ongoing ordeal for months.

“I’m allergic to dust, pollen, ragweed, some kinds of trees that I can’t keep track of. Basically, if it’s in nature, I’m probably allergic to it,” says Vanessa Compagnone, who hasn’t had a break from her allergy symptoms since last year.

“This year, it does not seem to have stopped. It seems to have been from September all the way through to right now. It just doesn’t seem to have let up at all this year,” she says.

Evidence shows longer, more severe allergy seasons

Compagnone’s experience is not an isolated one and scientific evidence shows that allergy seasons are getting longer in Canada.

“Overall, we’re seeing a lot more pollen across Canada … we actually believe that it’s going to be a pretty bad season again this year,” says Daniel Coates, director of Aerobiology Research Laboratories.

The organization is among the world’s foremost experts in allergen forecasting and has been documenting notable changes in pollen levels and when it is released for decades.

“We have one of the biggest databases of pollen and outdoor mold counts in the world … and in the last 15 years or so, we’re definitely seeing a lot higher concentration,” says director Daniel Coates.

“It fluctuates up and down but overall the trend line dictates that we’re having longer seasons with more pollen on average per year in Canada as a whole.”

Allergy season — when trees begin releasing pollen — usually starts around the second week of February for western Canada and British Columbia. For the rest of Canada, it begins around mid-March. The Maritimes and Prairies see a later start, around mid-April.

As Compagnane’s allergic reactions evidence, some areas of Canada have seen higher concentrations of pollen since the beginning of the year.

“Especially in Western Canada and British Columbia — they started with high levels pretty much right off the bat, back in late January, early February,” says Coates.

“For the rest of Canada, we did get an early start in Ontario around early March, which is much sooner — about two weeks or so sooner — than we usually see, even in February in some areas. Windsor had some early starts this year, big time, compared to previous seasons.”

Coates explains that the main reason for this phenomenon is rising temperatures.

“Pollen is actually created in trees the year prior. So last summer, the pollen that’s being released right now is actually being developed in the trees. And trees love warm weather, the pollen loves warm weather. We’re experiencing more warm weather here in Canada on average than we did say 25 years ago. So with more warm weather comes more pollen, higher concentrations, and a longer season,” he says.

“Nationally speaking and globally speaking, [much] of it should be attributed to climate change. We’re not researchers in that area, but we get a lot of the research papers from it and it shows that there’s definitely a correlation and that would hold true with what we’re seeing with our pollen data and spore data.”

Coping with allergies

Knowing what you’re allergic to is the obvious first step in mitigating symptoms, says Toronto general practitioner Dr. David Greenberg.

“If it hurts when you go like that, don’t go like that — so if you know that you’re going to be exposed to it, avoid it the best you can,” he says.

Aerobiology Research Laboratories releases daily pollen forecasts to help people do just that.

“Our forecasts are over 80 per cent accurate. So knowing what’s in the air, knowing those levels helps people adjust their schedules or their activities,” says Coates.

“A lot of people like to run, well maybe if you’re allergic to birch, maybe run on a track inside on high birch days or take your workout activities inside instead of outside.”

Other practical suggestions include wearing wraparound sunglasses to keep pollen out of your eyes and close windows on high pollen days.

“A lot of people have dogs — don’t let the dog in your bed if you’re sleeping because they track pollen into the house,” adds Coates.

If you can’t entirely avoid your allergens, most common allergy symptoms can be managed with over-the-counter medications. Greenberg says that’s an area in which there has been tremendous progress over the years.

“A long time ago, people needed to know exactly what they were allergic to because then they’d get serum, then they would get injected once a week to reduce their allergy response. The reason that was critical was because the only allergy medication that existed was really sedating. So lot of people couldn’t work and be on allergy medication,” he explains.

“About the time when I started in practice, they started inventing non-sedating antihistamines, and that changed everything.”

As such, it’s no longer crucial to know exactly what kind of allergen you may be reacting to.

“We don’t have to worry about smart bombing and saying, ‘you’re allergic to birch pollen’ and treating you for birch pollen. All of the drugs that are available these days, prescription and non-prescription, pretty much cover almost everything in terms of the environmental stuff,” says Greenberg.

He adds that it is sometimes suggested that allergy sufferers begin taking antihistamines daily as the season begins “to get out ahead of it.”

“I don’t think that’s a bad idea necessarily, because most of these antihistamines are a ‘do no harm’ drug. There’s nothing really about being on them long term that’s going to be a problem,” he says.

If you’re not getting any relief, it’s best to see a doctor to determine if you need prescription strength medications or a nasal spray for respiratory issues.

If you’re unsure of what’s causing your symptoms, there’s an easy rule of thumb that can help determine whether you have allergies or something viral like a cold or flu.

“If it lasts longer than a week, it’s probably not a cold. Most viral things resolve within a week. So somebody comes in and says, ‘well, I’ve had a cold for three weeks,’ — you haven’t had a cold for three weeks. You probably have allergies,” says Greenberg.

Along with duration, Greenberg adds that while allergy symptoms are similar to those caused by a viral infection, there are notable differences.

“You don’t get a fever with allergies. Most people get a bit of a scratchy throat, but you don’t get a sore throat. You would never get swollen glands with allergies,” he says.

“I think people with allergies are miserable, not sick. That’s a good way of looking at it.”

Compagnane couldn’t agree more.

“Yes, I would say that is a completely accurate statement,” she says.