With reports that allergy season could get worse in the District, many sufferers have been left wondering what they can do to avoid the intolerable sneezing, coughing and other symptoms that usually dog them throughout the spring and summer.
But runny noses, congestion and itchy throats are an unfortunate fact of life for more than 50 million Americans who suffer from nasal allergies that can be triggered by tree or grass pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mold and other causes.
Some experience their worst moments in the spring. For others, the agony arrives in the fall. And some unfortunates deal with the problem year-round, a situation Max Wiseberg said he understands and identifies with.
“I had hay fever all my life and I tried everything,” said Wiseberg, creator of HayMax, a natural organic balm that traps allergens when applied to the nostrils. “I took pills. I underwent acupuncture. Either the remedies didn’t work, gave me headaches or made me drowsy.”
While his product might work, a new study said more children could wind up in hospital emergency rooms suffering from allergy-induced asthma if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and cause longer oak pollen seasons.
The latest research finds that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase through the end of this century, the oak pollen season in some areas could extend by up to eight days.
Those with oak pollen allergies, particularly children, will have longer exposure to pollen that can induce allergic asthma which could increase the associated hospital emergency room visits for allergic asthma by 10 percent in the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast combined, according to the study published in GeoHealth, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, a D.C.-based organization that promotes discovery in Earth and space science.
Allergic asthma associated with oak pollen sends more than 20,000 people to emergency rooms every year, and the increase in pollen could result in a 10 percent increase in hospital ER visits by 2090, the study’s authors said.
These additional ER visits would add an estimated $10.4 million to the $346.2 million cost that would be expected under baseline conditions through 2090, they said.
“We found that the severe climate change scenario had a substantial impact on public health,” Susan Anenberg, an environmental scientist at Environmental Health Analytics, LLC, in D.C., and lead author of the new study, said in a news release.
Previous research has already shown that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has caused ragweed, another strong allergen, to produce higher concentrations of pollen, Anenberg said.
The study could help doctors anticipate changes in allergic asthma as the climate changes, said Samantha Ahdoot, a pediatrician in Alexandria, Virginia, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
“I would hope that this research would help the public and policymakers to understand that changes that occur in the environment, whether it is plant life or climate, trickle down and ultimately affect the health of people,” Ahdoot said.
For the study, Anenberg and her colleagues calculated the number of emergency room visits for allergic asthma across the Southeast, Midwest, and Northeast today and in the future, using observed relationships between oak pollen and asthma ER visits in Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York City.
They found that there were 21,200 oak pollen-related allergic asthma ER visits in 2010.
Of those visits, 70 percent were children under the age of 18, indicating that children may be more vulnerable to climate change-related health impacts.
The authors used climate models and known relationships between temperature, precipitation, and oak pollen to estimate the oak pollen season length under both a moderate climate change scenario and a severe climate change scenario.
Combining the emergency room visit and climate model information, they found that the most severe climate change scenario would increase ER visits in the three regions by 5 percent in 2050 and by 10 percent in 2090.
Under a moderate climate change scenario, the number of visits would only increase by 4 percent, avoiding more than half of the emergency incidents in the severe scenario, the study revealed.
“The impact of oak pollen on human health in the United States is extensive and likely worsening over time with climate change,” Anenberg said. “Our results could be underestimating a much bigger problem, since environmental changes could also affect other pollen types and other health outcomes.”
Earlier this spring, Dr. Rachel Schreiber, an allergist and immunologist in Rockville, told WTOP that tree pollen counts in D.C. are in the high range and will go into the very high range.
What to really beware of are rainy days followed by a warm day, she said.
“The rain will help the trees grow, of course, and as the trees grow, they bloom,” Schreiber said. “So I think if we get a nice rainy couple of days here, and then you have a warm day after that, the pollens will just go crazy.”
When individuals encounter worsening symptoms, they should visit a doctor, Schreiber said.
“Toughing it out on your own and self-medicating isn’t a great idea because over-the-counter allergy medications can carry risks,” she said. “Besides, allergies can make you feel sick for a long period of time, and they can contribute to asthma.”