Although this year's long winter is slowly receding, allergy sufferers may feel its effects well into springtime. Pollen season is likely to be grueling this year, experts say.
A prolonged season of record cold and high winds this past winter means that more trees are producing pollen all at once than is typically the case.
"When you've got a shorter season in the spring, that triggers these trees to wake up either later than their usual time or at their usual time," said Dr. Richard Bransford with the Twin Cities area Allergy and Asthma Specialists.
Normally trees "pace themselves," he said. Maples, birches and oaks do not bloom all at once, he said, but if low temperatures keep these trees in hibernation too long, their blooming schedules get off kilter. This means the pollen from more trees will be in the air — and in your nose — all at once.
Tree pollen season usually begins in March, but this year it's coming a little later and all the more vehemently because of that.
"The development of the plant is slowed down and is made up for later with higher speed," said Dr. Hannelore Brucker of Southdale Allergy and Asthma Clinic. "They're all just waiting to pop open," she said of the dormant buds.
Brucker said she has measured allergy activity this season by the phone calls she gets at her clinic, and the up-down temperatures have been reflected in the up-down number of calls.
A pollen counter near Bransford's office indicated that pollen activity has been exceptionally high this season. Last Wednesday, when strong winds picked up even more pollen, the readout showed pollen levels as high as eight times the average for an ordinary season — and well into the range for what is considered high levels of pollen, Bransford said.
Between 40 million and 50 million people in the United States are affected by allergies, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, based in Baltimore, Md., and about 8 percent of all U.S. adults suffer from pollen allergies, including hay fever and allergic rhinitis. Some people, however, may not realize they have a pollen allergy if they suffer from other allergies, too, Brucker said.
Pollen season may ease into grass allergy season, which starts toward the end of spring, and this overlap can mask pollen allergy symptoms, Brucker said.
A trifecta of sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes or an itch at the roof of the mouth or back of the throat is an indicator of a pollen allergy, Brucker said, singling out the itchiness as a strong distinction between an allergy and the common cold.
To alleviate allergy symptoms, the Mayo Clinic advises using air conditioning; staying in on dry, windy days; keeping your floors swept and vacuumed, and using a saline solution to help with congestion.
Elizabeth Hustad is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.