It seems as though every spring allergy comes in like a lion and roars out like...an even bigger lion. The 2011 spring allergy season was a miserable one, with record-breaking pollen levels, just as the 2010 allergy season was before it. So should we expect each spring allergy season to be worse than the last, in an eternal one-upmanship that sends us running for the tissue box or the asthma inhaler?
Probably so. And the pattern could hold true for fall allergies as well. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the length of ragweed season in various areas of the country increased by as much as 27 days between 1995 and 2009. The culprit? Climate change, the researchers said.
"The seasons are getting longer—they're starting earlier and pollens are getting released earlier," says Stanley Fineman, MD, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and an allergist at the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic. "And not only is there warmer weather, there tends to be more CO2 in atmosphere." CO2, or carbon dioxide, feeds plants and leads to a greater release of pollen, and sometimes that pollen is more potent and more allergenic than it was when there was less CO2 in the atmosphere.
But Dr. Fineman points to another impact of climate change, and one you may not have ever associated with asthma or allergies—thunderstorms. Climatologists have noted that climate change will lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of severe storms, and Dr. Fineman says that quite a few studies have linked thunderstorms to a greater incidence of asthma-related hospitalizations. It's called "thunderstorm asthma," and although doctors haven't pinned its cause to a specific element in severe weather, they suspect it has something to do with all the pollen and particulate matter that thunderstorms stir up.
Ironically, one solution for resolving both climate change and the worsening allergies it causes is the painfully high gas prices we've all had to pay recently. Numerous surveys have shown that as prices rise, sales of gasoline decline. That means people are driving less and their cars are spewing fewer pollutants, including CO2, into the air. "Studies have shown that if we can reduce the amount of pollution and exhaust fumes, we can reduce the problems that people with allergies and asthma have," Dr. Fineman says. "It's less likely to cause flare-ups."