‘Pollen season is here’: Spring allergies arrive early in some parts of Canada

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Surviving spring allergy season
WATCH: Tips to survive spring allergy season. – Apr 17, 2019

With a milder winter wrapping up across Canada, many seasonal allergy sufferers may find themselves confronted with an unexpected consequence: an early start to the spring allergy season.

Although allergy season has arrived earlier than usual in certain parts of the country this year, experts say that occasional bursts of cold weather in March could potentially delay the onset of pollen, offering a temporary respite for some.

“Pollen season is here,” Daniel Coates, director of Aerobiology Research Laboratories, told Global News. “It started earlier this year compared to the same time last year, depending on where you live. But if we do get a cold flux, then those pollen levels will drop for a little while until it warms up again.”

The progression of allergy seasons typically follows a defined pattern: tree pollen dominates in spring, grass takes centre stage during summer, and ragweed prevails in the fall. Because of the unusually warm winter across many parts of Canada, this means some trees may start to bloom and release pollen into the air ahead of schedule, Coates said.

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The major tree pollen culprits in Canada are birch, alder, oak, maple and cedar, Coates said. These trees produce large amounts of pollen that are dispersed into the air during their blooming seasons, triggering allergic reactions in susceptible people.

If you live in regions where these trees are abundant, Coates advised, “consider stocking up on allergy medication sooner rather than later.”

About one-quarter of Canadians suffer from seasonal allergies, according to the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (CSACI).

Common symptoms of seasonal allergies include sneezing, an itchy nose and throat, nasal congestion, a runny nose, coughing and watery, itchy, and reddened eyes.

“It’s not a nuisance disease, it’s got a lot of quality-of-life impact,” said Anne Ellis, president of CSACI. She added that forecasting pollen seasons for those who suffer from allergies has become increasingly challenging due to the unpredictability of the weather.

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If the weather continues to warm this spring without a drop in temperature, she cautioned, trees will begin to pollinate sooner.

What parts of Canada will have it worse?

Western Canada is already experiencing pollen season, Coates said, which is typical for this region as it has a much milder climate and earlier spring temperatures. Many areas, such as Vancouver, are often grappling with allergy triggers as early as January, he added.

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Yet Coates pointed out that last year, the pollen season began early in B.C., too. However, an abrupt cold spell in March brought a sudden halt to the allergy season there.

“If we do get a cold flux in place, you’ll see that those pollen levels will drop, for a little while till it warms up again. But we are in pollen season,” he said.

On the Prairies, Coates said pollen season has yet to begin.

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Dealing with allergy season in Healthy Living

“Saskatchewan just got a bunch of snow,” he said, but added if the region experiences a warmer spring than usual, allergy season may kick off as early as March, instead of its typical start in late April or early May.

For those who live in Ontario and southern Quebec, Coates said pollen has already been detected early in these provinces and expects it will get even worse by the end of March.

“It is starting earlier here. But it might not necessarily be a worse season. We could see the paths and concentrations expand over a period of time rather than being in a short period and really condensed,” he said.

Similar to the Prairies, Eastern Canada has yet to experience an early onset of spring, suggesting that the allergy season there may follow its typical course, he said.

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'A lot more pollen in the air'

Every spring, the allergy season fluctuates depending on temperature and precipitation. However, with the effects of climate change becoming more pronounced, there’s a noticeable trend towards longer and more intense allergy seasons.

“In Canada, overall, we’re seeing a lot more pollen in the air than we did 15 to 20 years ago. And even though pollen acts like a business where it goes up and down, the trend line dictates that overall we’re seeing a lot more pollen in Canada, year over year,” Coates said.

Ellis echoed this sentiment.

Click to play video: 'How climate change is affecting seasonal allergies'
How climate change is affecting seasonal allergies

“We always have a little bit of a warm-up in the spring, and then we get cold again, … at least in the last five to 10 years anyway,” Ellis said. “This year has been unusual. The warm-up has been longer than we’ve seen in the past 10 years, so it’s it’ll be interesting to see if current mild conditions continue, that will send the right signal to the trees to start pollinating.”

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If you do suffer from allergies, Ellis recommends stocking up on good-quality antihistamines and nasal steroids.

There is also an option of talking to your primary care provider for prescription options and also getting referred to an allergist for consideration of immunotherapy, she said.

“But first and foremost, it’s easy to get into your pharmacist. (In Ontario) they can prescribe now for minor ailments as well, which include, hay fever or allergic rhinitis,” she said.

“So I think it’s worth having a conversation with your pharmacist, not just picking up something off the shelf that you think might work. They can probably give you some good advice.”

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