You may have noticed that your allergies arrived a little late this year but in full throttle. These seasonal allergies—also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis—kick off when outdoor molds release spores and weeds, grasses and trees release pollen in order to fertilize other plants. Vancouver Allergist and Clinical Immunologist Dr. Joanne Yeung says that seasonal allergies affect up to 25% of the population. Having previously worked as a Consultant Pediatric Allergist at the BC Children’s Hospital and a Clinical Instructor at UBC, Dr. Yeung currently specializes in helping infants, children and young adults with management and diagnosis of allergies. She told Vancouver Weekly over an email interview that allergies often develop in childhood, teenage years or young adult years, but persist until people are in their 50’s and 60’s.
“It can lead to missed school, work and sleep and can significantly impact one’s quality of life,” says Yeung. “[This can make it] a big burden on society.”
The 2016 Vancouver allergy season
“This has been a typical year for us,” says Dr. Yeung of Vancouver’s particular climate. “It started a few weeks later than last year—in early March as opposed to late February—most likely because the temperature remained chilly for a bit longer.”
Particularly rainy spring seasons can lead to fast plant growth and this in turn leads to increases in mold, which enable allergy symptoms to last into the fall.
“Trees pollenate first, starting from late February to early March,” says Dr. Yeung. “They peak in March and April and start to come down in May. Then grass pollen takes over during grass cutting season, from May until August, with the peak being May and June. On the West Coast, there is almost no ragweed here, but out east, beyond the Prairies, it can be a big problem in the late summer and fall.”
Vancouver’s pollen counts have been quite average for this time of year, and since our city is lush with greenery it has the mildest climate in the country.
“But that comes at a cost as pollen seasons are longer and pollen counts can be higher,” says Dr. Yeung, predicting a lengthy allergy season for the West Coast.
Symptoms and treatments
Typically the beautiful cherry blossom scenery and bike and beach walking weather that Vancouverites enjoy so much comes with some not so lovely side effects: nasal congestion, sneezing, runny nose, itchy red watery eyes, and post-nasal drip that causes frequent coughing or throat clearing.
“Some people also have asthma, and pollen allergies can make it harder for them to breath, bringing on wheeze and coughing fits,” Dr. Yeung explains. “Antihistamines are the most effective over-the-counter medications for seasonal allergies. Make sure they are the non-sedating type, not the older sedating types.”
There are some medications to be wary of as you search for some quick relief as the skies start to clear and the days brighten.
“Beware of allergy medications that are combination medications containing a decongestant.” Dr. Yeung warns. “While the decongestant clears up the nose quickly, using it more than a few days in a row can cause the symptoms to rebound even worse afterward.”
Also be cautious when using OTC nasal sprays like Otrivin, being sure not to over-use as that can also lead to rebounding symptoms. Nasal saline washes help clear out pollen and mucous in the nose and some eye drops like Cromolyn work to reduce itch and redness, but may not work as well as prescription eye drops. It is always best to get an allergist’s or pharmacist’s opinion on this if you are unsure of what is best for your particular situation.
“If your symptoms are not well controlled with these strategies, talk to your doctor about some prescription medications,” Dr. Yeung advises. “There are a number of things to try that are extremely effective and safe. Some people may be good candidates of immunotherapy, a lengthy treatment that trains up your immune system to not be so allergic anymore. This is done under the guidance of an allergist.”
While seasonal allergies are perfectly normal, they are appearing more frequently as the years go by. Dr. Tim Takaro, Professor in the Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, is currently researching for signs of climate change by looking at pollen counts.
“We are presently analyzing a decade of pollen data from Toronto to look for signals of climate change in these data,” says Dr. Takaro.
Sneezing, watery eyes, coughing and runny nose symptoms may be familiar to you and seem like just a regular part of spring, but as the climate changes seasonal allergies are expected to rise too. This is a slow process but evident none-the-less, and specialists are on the lookout for patterns.
“We know pollen seasons are getting longer and want to learn if this also impacts healthcare utilization for asthma and allergic symptoms,” says Dr. Takaro. “We should have a answer next year.”