Connecticut is in for a longer, more severe allergy season
Spring conditions are arriving early in Connecticut this year, and so are the allergies that come with them.
Pam Angelillo, a registered allergy nurse at the UConn Health, said patients have been coming for allergy symptoms and tests since February, a process that usually starts in March and lasts through May.
“It’s certainly earlier than previous years,” she said.
Due to warmer-thanusual winter conditions, Connecticut is likely to have a longer and more intense allergy season, said Kevin McGrath, a spokesperson for the American
College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology practicing in Wethersfield. Warmer weather leads to melting snow and humid conditions that allow plants with airborne pollen to grow.
“There has been less kill off of the trees and of the grass and the lawns. You can look and see how the ground is moist. So anytime it’s moist, and it’s warm, that’ll basically produce a pretty good spring season as far as pollen,” he said.
McGrath said last week’s winter storm that gave Connecticut up to several inches of snow created a temporary effect on this transition. When temperatures increase to the 50s and 60s, warm fronts coming from the Southern U.S. can bring early pollen from those areas.
The pollen count in most of Connecticut is currently in the low to midrange, according to pollen.com.
“That’s why even when our stuff isn’t blooming, when we start getting some warmer weather from the fronts coming up, we can still see people with symptoms,” he said.
Which plants bring on the most allergy symptoms?
Allergies to the airborne pollen are common in Connecticut, said Florence Ida Hsu, assistant professor of Clinical Medicine in Allergy & Immunology at the Yale School of Medicine. In 2022, New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford were ranked among the country’s top most challenging places to live with seasonal allergies.
Trees tend to pollinate in Connecticut from late March through May, and for grass, the peak months are May and June, she said.
“People often blame flowering plants for their allergy symptoms, since they see flowers when they are symptomatic. However, the pollen from flowering plants, trees, and weeds are usually not airborne – they are carried from flower to flower by insects such as honeybees and butterflies, as well as birds and bats,” she said. “It’s the plants that do not have showy flowers that are releasing pollen grains into the air in order to reproduce.”
Trees are often the biggest culprit for spring allergy symptoms like itchy eyes, watery eyes, runny nose and fatigue, McGrath said. Many people see their allergies and asthma symptoms peak in May when the early spring trees, mold, grass and weeds pollinate at the same time.
Have allergies gotten worse over time?
Studies show that climate change is contributing to longer and more severe allergy seasons. From 1990 to 2018, pollen seasons in North America lengthened by 20 days and pollen counts grew by 21%, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
“It tends to come earlier when we’ve had warmer winters and we’ve had a very mild winter this year. So it’s certainly starting sooner. I think that definitely attributes to the higher pollen counts,” Angelillo said.
In a 2022 study, researchers at the University of Michigan predicted that if carbon emissions remain high, the U.S. will see as much as a 200% increase in pollen this century. Pollen season will change more severely in the Northeast due to larger temperature increases, according to the study.
Rising temperatures also lead to higher ground ozone levels and worse air quality, causing lung inflammation and irritation.
Angelillo, who has worked at UConn Health for almost seven years, has seen a gradual increase in the number of allergy and asthma patients and the severity of their symptoms.
“It’s earlier and it’s been a little bit more than previous years. Gradually every year it seems to be getting a little worse,” she said.
In addition to environmental factors, the rise in diagnoses can be attributed to the growing awareness and education of allergy and asthma symptoms as well as the link between the two, McGrath said.
People have also become more health conscious since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring allergies can be confused with viral respiratory infections such as COVID-19 and the common cold because they share similar symptoms, Hsu said, such as nasal congestion, runny nose and cough. However, allergies do not cause fever or make it painful to swallow, but rather they create a scratchy or itchy sensation in the throat.
How do you treat/alleviate allergy symptoms?
McGrath recommends consulting an allergist early in the season and, if possible, going outside early or late in the day.
“When people go out and go for a run or walk at lunchtime, it’s nice, but that tends to be the peak time for pollen,” he said.
Angelillo suggests sleeping with the windows closed when pollen counts are high and taking a shower before going to sleep if you’ve been outside for a long period of time.
Hsu said antihistamines are most effective against itching, sneezing, watering and a runny nose, and nasal sprays help with congestion.
“I typically advise my patients against waiting until their symptoms are unbearable to treat — the later you treat, the harder it is to calm the symptoms down again, and prevention is often the most effective option with allergies,” she said.