Allergy sufferers hit early, and hit hard this spring

If you suffer from allergies, no, it's not your imagination.

This year has probably been hard on you; the runny nose, the itchy eyes, they likely attacked earlier than usual.

The mild winter meant trees began releasing their pollen up to a month earlier than they normally do.

"Pollen season did come early," said Dr. Donald Stark, a clinical associate professor of allergy and immunology at the University of B.C. "A mild winter is usually conducive to pollen coming out early, which it did.

"And we had high pollen counts early this year."

The Weather Network tracks the amount of pollen in the air and rates as "high" any amount above 80 grains per cubic metre on its three-day pollen outlook.

Some pollen counts this year have measured thousands of grains per cubic metre, typically from alder trees.

"That's pretty high," Stark said.

Birch pollen tends to measure in the hundreds of grains per cubic metre, with maple, cottonwood and oak measuring toward the lower end of the scale.

Of late, a typical Weather Network pollen count for cedar and juniper trees was "high," and for birch, aspen and poplar "moderate."

In B.C., the lower coast offers ideal conditions for many kinds of pollen-shedding trees to flourish.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, cherry blossoms are not a bother to allergy sufferers, because the blossoms' sticky pollen is carried tree to tree by insects.

But for the tree species that rely on the wind to spread their pollen, all tend to have slightly different germination times, dragging out the allergy season — beginning with hazelnut in January, alder in February, then birch and then oak.

"They're all similar in their chemistry," he said. "As the season goes along, you get more and more sensitized to these pollens.

"It makes for a long season for tree pollen, probably the longest tree-pollen season in Canada."

And that's not even taking into consideration that grass begins to pollinate in the summer, followed by many weeds that pollinate in the fall.

If you're allergic to pollen, you should follow the Weather Network and start taking antihistamines about two weeks before pollen season kicks in, Stark said.

There is no lack of over-the-counter, non-prescription antihistamines.

Most doctors recommend rinsing your eyes with saline and choosing an antihistamine that doesn't cause drowsiness.

Expensive brand-name antihistamines are in general no more effective than cheaper generic alternatives, according to a 2015 Consumer Reports survey.

According to a federal government study, which is in Year 12 of its 15-year lifespan, allergies and conditions such as hay fever and asthma are "sweeping the industrialized world, and Canada is near the top of the list of nations facing a growing problem."

The report, carried out by the Allergy, Genes and Environment Network, or AllerGen, cited a critical shortage of allergists, immunologists, clinical scientists and allergy-related health professionals and educators in Canada.

Allergies affect one in three Canadians and cost the health-care system and society in general “billions of dollars annually,” the report said.

We don't yet know why Canada and other industrialized countries have such high rates of allergy sufferers, but there are theories, said Dr. Amin Kanani, a clinical instructor of allergy and immunology at UBC.

"If you look at trends over the decades, the last 30 or 40 years, we've seen a significant increase (in allergies)," Kanani said. "The big question is why this has happened, and no one has the right answer to this.

"The most common hypothesis is a hygiene hypothesis."

Put simply, the hypothesis is that by being too clean as an infant, by not eating sand, not putting dirty fingers in your mouth and not eating things off the floor — having an idle immune system, as Kanani put it — can be bad for you later in life.

By adulthood, if you're prone to allergic reactions, those early pollinating hazelnuts, even though there aren't a lot on the south coast, prime you for when alder sends its pollen out on the wind.

"When the alder comes out, people who are allergic react far more severely," Kanani said. "It will probably get worse through April and then usually tree pollen settles down by May."

Just in time for grass pollen to start.

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