ENVIRONMENT: Allergies bloom early with warm winter


Divya Chandra was seeking relief when she entered the Allergy Clinic at the University of Maryland Monday morning. Her nose running constantly, her eyes pooling with water — she was desperate for anything that would make her feel better.

After her allergies flared around mid-March, a month earlier than usual, Chandra, a freshman government and politics major at the university, decided to take action.

“It was really early this season,” she said. “I’m sneezing, I have watery eyes. … Everything started blooming earlier.”

Chandra and other allergy sufferers throughout the region have fallen victim to an uncharacteristically warm winter that has caused tree pollen to skyrocket earlier than in past years, sending scores into allergy-induced misery, according to Howard County Health Officer Peter Beilenson.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people complaining of allergies,” Beilenson said. “It’s certainly much worse than the typical March.”

But an early start will not mean an early ending for the season, he added.

After an unusually mild winter in which temperatures spiked as high as 80 degrees and routinely rested above the normal temperatures in the 30s and 40s, tree pollen in the D.C. metropolitan area started blooming during the third week of February, with pollen counts soaring to 239, according to Susan Kosisky, microbiologist at the U.S. Army Centralized Allergen Extract Lab in Silver Spring.

Higher-than-average counts persisted throughout February and into March, reaching 331 during the third week of March, more than twice the average of 136, according to Kosisky. She recorded a count of 2,123 Wednesday, the highest (count) so far this year. Oak, maple, cedar, sycamore, ash, mulberry, birch and cottonwood trees are the culprits, she said.

Warmer-than-average temperatures are expected to persist throughout the spring months, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggesting these trees will continue yielding significant pollen counts.

“We just had some of the early pollinating trees coming out a lot earlier,” Kosisky said. “Any time you have high pollen counts, folks who are sensitive to the species that are pollinating will most likely react. … Folks are sneezing and sniffling.”

Cold, damp weather, which stifles pollen from blooming, has been scarce this winter, she added. Rainfall totals for March were two inches below normal, according to the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.

“Let’s say we have a period of rainy, cool weather — that’s going to dampen the spirit of the trees and that’s going to make (counts) a little lower,” Kosisky said.

Patients have been pouring into allergy care centers, such as Allergy and Asthma Care Center in Rockville, seeking relief from allergy-like symptoms.

“Every season we see the same number of people who are miserable, but we’re seeing them a lot earlier now,” said Dr. Jiun Yoon, an allergist at the center. “Typically, we don’t see a big rush of patients probably toward mid-to-end (of) April.”

While Yoon said he thought the season might end a little sooner, grass pollen season, which typically peaks in the summer, will take its place. He suggested sufferers take showers and keep windows closed to eliminate the spread of pollen indoors.

Kosisky said small amounts of grass pollen have emerged prematurely as well.

Featured photo: Pollen up close. Source: Harvard Medical School, hms.harvard.edu.

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