Significantly higher levels of pollen count than usual in Canada are becoming a nuisance for allergy sufferers this year.
The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have been hit particularly hard, according to data shared with Global News by Aerobiology Research Laboratories.
For the month of May 2021, Toronto reported 7,790 pollen grains per cubic metre — more than double the amount for the same period last year. Ottawa’s May pollen levels were at 8,544 — up from 6,412 in 2020.
The total amount of pollen in Hamilton, Ont., recorded over the past four weeks is 11,381, a three-fold increase from the year before (3,570). Meanwhile, Montreal’s pollen levels stood at 10,407 compared to 4,919 last year.
“For the most part, in Canada, in many regions, we’ve seen higher than your typical average pollen counts,” said Daniel Coates, director of Aerobiology Research Laboratories.
Seasonal allergies are commonly caused by three main types of pollen: trees, grass and weeds.
Typically, tree or birch pollen season starts in late April or early May and lasts about two to four weeks in total, according to Anne Ellis, professor of medicine and chair of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Grass pollen starts circulating in May and goes through June for two months.
But this year, higher temperatures caused an early start to spring and seasonal allergies, according to experts.
Warm weather makes plants bloom and the pollen from trees, grass or weed tends to travel more under hot, dry conditions.
“We had a very early spring with a lot of warm weather, and that really kicked in the pollen season into high gear,” said Coates.
Ellis said this is the first year Ontario has seen such high levels of birch pollen.
“Whether or not this continues will remain to be seen in the coming years,” she told Global News.
Ragweed season typically starts in August and goes on until the first frost in the fall, sometime in October.
Climate change and global warming are driving the longer pollen season and higher counts, experts say.
“We know that the increased levels of carbon dioxide really are a contributing factor to the increased pollen production by various plants,” said Karen Binkley, a clinical allergist and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
Urbanization or city planning also have a role to play, Coates said, because a lot of cities prefer planting male trees over female trees, that produce no pollen but tend to create more of a mess from fruits and flowers. And unlike their female counterparts, distinctly male trees produce pollen but not seeds, pods and fruit, which fall to the ground.
Allergies vs COVID-19
Each year, pollen allergies affect many across the country, but the concerns are heightened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as signs of seasonal allergies can appear to be similar to symptoms of the virus.
More than 40 per cent of Canadians report being allergic to pollens or grasses, according to a 2017 Statistics Canada survey.
Common symptoms of seasonal allergies include sneezing, runny nose, cough from post-nasal drip and nasal congestion — all of which overlap with symptoms of COVID-19.
“Last year, there was a big fear with pollen season with people running around with cold-like symptoms, which are similar to COVID symptoms and it put a lot of people into a little bit more of a panic or paranoia,” said Coates.
Despite the similarities, though, there are some notable differences.
Itchy or watery eyes and a blocked nose are common for allergies but are generally not associated with COVID-19. Whereas body aches, fatigue, sore throat, fever and a loss of smell and taste are more common when you have COVID-19, but not an allergic reaction.
“Although if allergies are severe and your whole nose is blocked up, you can also lose your sense of smell,” said Binkley.
While there is no reason to believe that COVID-19 could impact pollen circulation, measures to mitigate the virus’ spread, like mask-wearing and spending more time at home, can, in turn, help manage the allergies, Binkley and Ellis said.
“The masks actually do have some ability to block pollen from entering your upper respiratory tract,” said Ellis.
“For people who are staying at home more and going outside less, they may have less exposure to pollen if they’re able to keep the windows and doors at home closed,” Binkley added.
In either case, depending on their symptoms, people should consult their health-care provider for treatment and get tested.