The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the trees are releasing big clouds of pollen.
It’s spring in most of Canada now, and that means it’s also the start of allergy season.
According to Asthma Canada, about one in five Canadians suffers from a respiratory allergy, meaning they might develop sniffles, a runny nose, itchy eyes and more when exposed to pollen.
Predicting a pollen season is tricky. Weather can have a big impact on pollen for example – if it’s rainy out, there’s less pollen in the air, and that’s hard to know far in advance. The types of plants and the timing of their pollen also vary around the country.
With that said, here are some best guesses on what to expect in the different regions. So far, pollen-watchers say, this year is looking a lot like last year.
Pollen season is well underway in B.C., said Dawn Jurgens, director of operations at Aerobiology Research Laboratories, a firm which monitors pollen across Canada.
“They had a bit of a slow start with the weather that they had out there,” she said. “They had some snow that they don’t normally get through the early part of the pollen season, so that kind of kept that a little bit low.”
But as the weather warms, plants begin to produce pollen. And if some are delayed because of cold weather, she said, sometimes that means several trees end up releasing their pollen at the same time, instead of one after the other. “And so then you’ll get more pollen in a shorter period of time.”
It remains to be seen whether that will happen in B.C., she said, but “they’ve been seeing a pretty good pollen season out there.”
WATCH: B.C. allergy season hits late and hard
So far, the Prairie pollen season has been typical, Jurgens said. Pollen levels are high but still within normal ranges. Allergy season in this part of Canada is shaping up to be “a lot like last year,” she said.
“In the short range forecasts that we’re looking at, it’s still nice and sunny and warm out there, so I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Ontario and Quebec
Ontario and Quebec are having a bit of a slow start to the season, she said, due to a cold spring so far.
“It’s definitely not going to be a high pollen season,” Jurgens said, though if it warms up, she thinks there could still be some pollen, just over a truncated period.
Ontarians face an added complication — getting hit with both trees and grass at the same time, according to Dr. Anne Ellis, professor of medicine and chair of the division of allergy and immunology at Queen’s University.
Over the past three to five years, she said, “there’s definitely been some changes to our climate patterns and we’ve had a much more delayed onset to our springs.”
This means that birch pollen season gets pushed back, she said, overlapping with grass pollen season in mid-May.
“So people who suffer from both tree and grass allergy have been consistently getting a real double whammy every spring. So they’re getting hit with the peak of the pollen season for both at the exact same time.”
WATCH: Allergy season is back in full force due to shifting climate patterns
It’s been cold in much of Atlantic Canada, Jurgens said, so there hasn’t been much pollen yet. “Hopefully, they get some nice spring weather coming soon and it’ll make all the snow go away and then we should see how the pollen season will progress for them.”
Atlantic Canada usually has a shorter pollen season because of the weather, she said, which sometimes seems to skip from winter right to summer.
That can mean lots of pollen in summer, she said, but this is part of the normal regional pattern.
WATCH: How to survive allergy season
Dealing with your allergies
Pollen is “impossible” to avoid completely, Ellis said, but there are a few things you can do.
Keeping your windows shut and running an air conditioner can help to cut down your exposure when you’re inside, she said.
“Obviously, you do have to leave the house at some point.”
At those times, pre-treating with a non-sedating antihistamine can help, she said. Doctors don’t generally recommend taking older antihistamines like diphenhydramine (sold under the brand name Benadryl) anymore, she said, because of the side effects.
“The idea is that if you start to see the buds coming out on the leaves and you typically have symptoms in the spring, having an antihistamine in your system before you get exposed to the allergen will do a better job of blocking the symptom development than trying to play catch-up after you start getting the symptoms.”
If ordinary antihistamines don’t work, you can get nasal corticosteroids over the counter, or get a prescription from your family doctor, Ellis said.
Paying attention to the pollen reports, Jurgens said, can help you adjust your outdoor activities or your medication accordingly in anticipation of a particularly bad day.
If you have problems year after year, Ellis suggests getting a referral to an allergist who might be able to prescribe specialized medication or even immunotherapy to help your body react less to the allergen.
“I think the big thing for your readers to recognize is that we have highly effective therapies for seasonal and all-year allergies.”