From the record-breaking rainfall in California to the recent bomb cyclone in Colorado (clocking wind speeds of 96 mph) — there’s been no shortage of extreme weather conditions in recent months, all wreaking havoc on the world’s ecosystem. And unfortunately for allergy sufferers, you can now add skyrocketing pollen counts to the growing list of environmental consequences.
And it’s not just speculation — climate change is making allergy season longer and more severe.
“Because of climate change, the trees are pollinating earlier and earlier,” Dr. David Rosenstreich, the director of the division of allergy and immunology for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montifore Medical Center, tells PEOPLE. “It used to be, in the Northeast, that the last week in February was the start of spring allergies, but now you can start to detect pollen at the beginning of February. It’s several weeks earlier now.”
Experts say a number of environmental factors are contributing to the pollen increase. One is an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the air, caused in part by burning fossil fuels.
“Plants are growing and pollinating more because of that,” Rosenstreich says. “People don’t understand that trees can be pollinating even if there’s snow on the ground.”
The additional CO2 strengthens ragweed in particular, which has also now popped up in California, an area that used to be free of the high-pollen plant.
Another cause is the warmer temperatures, which also make allergy-causing plants like oak and elm trees — the primary offenders for spring allergies — sprout earlier in the year. Between 1995 and 2015, the warmer temperatures have extended the allergy season by 6 to 21 days, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency.
And city dwellers with allergies are in for a tougher time — climate change can increase air pollution, which in turn boosts pollen production and strength, and can cause more severe asthma attacks.
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So what are allergy sufferers to do? Along with making changes to help the environment, like reducing their plastic use, choosing public transportation and finding alternative energy sources, Rosenstreich says to get ahead of allergy season.
“As soon as you get any symptoms, take your medication. They’re antihistamines and they work much better to prevent allergies than they do to treat allergies.”
He also recommends staying indoors in the morning, when pollen counts are higher. “If you want to run or exercise outside, you should do it in the afternoon or at night,” he says.
And it’s also worth it shake out clothes after going outdoors, and taking a shower to rinse out the pollen.
“The spring allergy season has already started,” says Rosenstreich, “but there are things you can do.”