Yes, Your Allergies Probably Are Worse.

Our expert explains what’s causing allergies and why.
Man with allergies sneezing or blowing nose into tissue outdoors

It’s finally feeling like spring. What’s not to love about warmer sunshine, longer days, budding trees and blooming flowers?

For the nearly 60 million people in the United States who suffer from seasonal allergies, the answer can be any or all of the following: coughing, sneezing, congestion, fatigue or itchy eyes.

In our area, spring allergies persist between March and May, when warmer temperatures blanket the region. That’s when mold and pollen circulate and send your immune system into overdrive.

What is Mold?

Several types of mold grow on fallen leaves, grasses, rotting logs and compost piles. Unlike pollen, molds don’t die with the first killing frost and they thrive in humid conditions. 

Mold allergy symptoms resemble what you’ll feel from pollen: itchy eyes, coughing, congestion and post-nasal drip.

“When it’s a 45-degree day, wet, warm, and there’s no grass or leaves out yet, mold spores can spread easily through the air,” says Kris Anderson, MD, an allergist at University of Vermont Health Network - Porter Medical Center.

What is Pollen?

Pollen is a microscopic allergen from flowering trees, weeds and grass. It triggers everything from sneezing and stuffiness to fatigue and coughing.

Plants like oak, maple, poplar trees, ragweed, orchard grasses and blue grasses have powdery granules of pollen that are easily blown by the wind.

Those granules can travel for miles, and it turns out that warmer winters are causing some of these plants to start producing pollen earlier and for longer.

“Because of climate change, the amount of pollen is getting worse,” shares Dr. Anderson.

When Are Allergies the Worst?

Once the leaves are out in May, pollen allergies tend to decline in June, he adds.

But outdoor molds persist throughout the year.

Molds are more of a problem in the early spring before the trees and grasses leaf out and in autumn after the leaves fall but before the snow arrives, Dr. Anderson explains. 

Why Do I Have Allergies Now?

If your allergies seem worse than they used to be, Dr. Anderson says you’re not imagining it. There can be several reasons why.

Moving to a new area can trigger allergies, for instance.

“Let’s say you grew up in Southern California, but then you move to Vermont. All the sudden, you’re around a whole different set of plants and your immune system starts noticing these things,” he says.

Another explanation is how trees were planted in cities and towns decades ago.

Female plants produce seeds, and male plants produce pollen. Communities installed more male plants in parks and neighborhoods 40 and 50 years ago to avoid cleaning up seeds from female plants.

“People don’t like to pick up seeds, so we preferentially planted male plants. The problem is we gave ourselves more pollen on purpose,” Dr. Anderson says. “They're not planting male trees as much as they did in the 1970s and 80s, but those male pollen-producing trees are the big trees out there now.”

Dr. Anderson also points to environmental progress.

“We’ve made our world much cleaner than it was 100 years ago,” he says. “That’s a good thing. But we’ve eliminated other triggers for the immune system – like worms or multi-cellular parasites – so our immune systems have become bored and are looking for things to do.”

How Can I Find Relief from Allergies?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, allergists have reported anecdotal increases in people seeking treatment for seasonal allergies.

Allergy relief can come in a variety of forms, including over-the-counter medications, prescription medications and allergy shots.

You can also try at-home practices, such as:

  • Keeping your windows closed
  • Washing any clothes worn outdoors
  • Taking a shower after being outside
  • Installing a filter on your home’s heating and air-conditioning system
  • Using an air purifier at home

Do Over-the-Counter Allergy Medications Work?

If at-home measures don’t work, you can try over-the-counter medications. Allergy medications fall into two categories: antihistamines and steroids. Both act on your immune system’s inflammatory response.

Dr. Anderson suggests an antihistamine pill or nasal spray for pollen, mold, animal dander and dust mites. Antihistamines – which block histamines and stop allergy symptoms — are available as nasal sprays, eye drops and oral pills.

Some patients opt for a nasal steroid spray, such as fluticasone, that treats allergies by reducing inflammation in the nose, he says.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Contact your provider if you’re already taking over-the-counter allergy medicines and not seeing results. Your provider may give you prescription-strength medication or refer you to an allergist, who may suggest allergy testing and shots.

You can also simply try holding out for a few more weeks. Mother Nature will deliver a dose of much-needed relief as soon as the landscape turns green.

 Stay Informed

Sign up to receive the latest stories, information and guidance from our experts on a wide variety of health topics.