Unusual climate patterns spike pollen levels

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

Albany, Ga. - If you thought the yellow stuff out on the street and on automobiles is heavier than normal this spring, you're not imagining things.

An abnormally cold winter followed by a rapid increase in temperatures has caused most of the plant life in the area to pollinate at the same time, ultimately causing pollen levels to spike more than in years past.

"We had an unusually cold winter,

and it started colder than usual," said Dr. Tracy Bridges of Allergy and Asthma Clinics of Georgia. "With intense warming, activity has increased.

"All of a sudden it got hot, and everything occurred very quickly. It was the perfect storm."

The weather has been dryer than it normally would be during this time of year, which is what has caused the pollen to linger, thereby resulting in heavier traffic within the offices of allergy specialists.

"Everything has come at one time, and there has been little precipitation to wash it away," Bridges said.

Normally, Southwest Georgia would start to feel the effects of pollen in mid-February, but unique circumstances this year delayed the impact by roughly two weeks.

Symptoms of pollen allergies include itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose.

"A lot of patients with repeated exposure will get nasal congestion," Bridges said.

Wheezing and chest-tightening can also occur with asthma patients, Bridges said.

Experts ominously note that there is actually more accumulation of pollen than is visible. They say allergy symptoms are usually caused by the particles in the air that can't be seen.

"The larger pollen particles are markers for the stuff you can't see," Bridges said. "Even if you are not allergic, if you can see it on your car, that gives you an idea of what is going into your sinuses."

As for prevention, the one thing everyone can do is use antihistamines to wash the pollen out of their system.

"It's quite easy and quite effective," Bridges said.

More severe cases might require nasal anti-inflammatory drugs, Bridges said.

"With many patients, we treat them with a cocktail of meds," he said.

Allergy shots are also an effective method of toning down the immune system's response.

"Over time, the seasons are more easily tolerated," Bridges said.

Bridges said it is also a good idea to have a treatment plan in place with one's doctor before the plant life blooms in order to avoid discomfort.

"We start plans for our patients around Valentine's Day," he said. "It's easier to contain a fire than get it under control. We see patients who are quite miserable."

A study recently released by Duke University indicates that loblolly pine pollen, which grows on nearly 60 million acres in the southern United States, has been found to travel up to 1,800 miles from its source.

The study also found that, despite exposure to moisture, cold and UV radiation from sunlight during its travel, more than 50 percent of the pollen is able to do its job.

"The odd thing is that pollen germination did not decline as distance increased," explained Claire Williams, a forest biologist who studies airborne pollen at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., in a news release. "You would expect germination to gradually drop off as pollen floats farther away, but that's not the case."

The findings were published online in the American Journal of Botany on March 26.

Generally, oak, hickory and pecan pollen are the agents causing problems for Albany allergy patients, Bridges said.

According to Pollen.com, Southwest Georgia is grouped with the regions having the highest activity in the country. The "medium" levels for pollen often fall somewhere between 4.9-7.2. From Friday until Monday, the pollen levels here are expected to range from 10.2-10.9 -- with Monday having the highest count.

The main area contributors to date have been oak, birch and sweetgum.