Michigan's allergy season starting 20 days sooner and sparking earlier symptoms, doctors say

It's not just you. Allergy seasons are getting worse and 2023 is no exception. 

Temperatures are warming sooner, allowing for pollen to be released into the environment sooner, causing symptoms like runny noses, congestion, sneezing, and other tell-tale signs of allergies to flare up earlier in the year. 

The main driver behind the growing allergy season is climate change, said Dr. Devang Doshi.

"We've been seeing an increase in pollen counts each year. The trend keeps going higher and higher," said Doshi, who works as an allergist at Corewell Hospital in Royal Oak. "As we get warmer earlier, the (allergy) seasons start sooner."

Seasonal allergies are triggered by pollen production that's breathed in by someone, allowing the particles come into contact with the body's respiratory system. After sticking to the inner lining of a body's breathing systems, like the nose or throat, the immune system reacts to the foreign substance. 

That's where the runny noses and sneezing fits start.

The symptoms range from itchy eyes, nose, throat, clear drainage from both sides of the nose, nasal congestion, sometimes wheezing, and coughing, says Dr. Amrita Ray.

Ray, who is an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Henry Ford Health Systems is seeing those symptoms in patients sooner each year.

"We've noticed so far it gets worse every year when allergy season kicks in," she said. "It's starting earlier and a lot stronger, especially in areas with four seasons."

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The warmer temperatures only tell part of the story, however. Extreme weather patterns has also made pollen production more erratic, said Ray.

"Previously we had gradual shifts in temperatures leading up to spring. Now we get sudden dramatic shifts where all of a sudden it jumps from 30 to 80 (degrees), triggering everything to produce pollen," she said.

The trend doesn't appear to be slowing down either, which will only perpetuate worse allergy seasons, Ray predicted.

"Not unless we kill off all the trees," she said, joking.

Allergy season coming sooner

Traditionally, the start of allergy season was late March or early April and would go until late September to mid-October. 

Both Doshi and Ray said the season has been extended by two or three weeks across most of the country. During the extended period, more pollen is being released into the environment.

"If I was allergic to things in the environment like tree pollen, then my allergy season would start sooner than it normally does," Doshi said. "The abundance of pollen starting earlier causes me to experience more symptoms, but also a lot earlier."

The severity is also leading to more people running out of medications that reduce symptoms.

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"When patients come in, they have exhausted over-the-counter remedies like eye drops, they get frustrated because nothing works," Doshi said. "What we're seeing is the severity is getting worse for patients."

Treatment options

Pinning down what exactly someone is allergic to can be tricky. Tracking down specific exposures presents challenges to someone since neither pollen nor individuals stay in one place.

But identifying what the trigger is for someone can better help them avoid the worst of allergies.

Ray puts treatment options into two different groups: proactively dealing with symptoms and retroactively dealing with them. If someone knows what is causing them issues, avoiding the source is the number one best option. 

"If you go work in a garden and you're doing things that you know are problematic, wearing a face mask is a really good filter for the stuff you're breathing in," she said.

Getting ahead of allergies may not be an option by late April since tree pollen - which is the type of pollen most associated with spring allergens - has already been released. In that case, Ray recommends periodic washing of the nose and throat to remove any irritants that may have been breathed in.

"The longer it sits, the more irritated your body becomes," she said. "Doing a nettie pot or sinus cleanse or even water can help with that."

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There are also medications like antihistamine that can reduce symptoms. However, they're not always effective for nasal congestion, which is where nasal sprays work.

Finally, for those whose symptoms are more than a general irritant and are magnifying other health problems, there are injection shots that slowly acclimate the body's immune system to a known allergen, allowing it to build up a tolerance without producing symptoms.