Are we having a worse allergy season in 2021?
The answer can be complicated. Yes … and no.
No: Face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially reduced not only the number of communicable viral illnesses but also allergy symptoms. A recent study (by Dror et al.) showed that self-reported nasal allergy symptoms (such as stuffy, runny, itchy nose and/or sneezing) were significantly reduced in nurses wearing either N95/surgical mask versus no mask. The size of most airborne allergens ranges from 10 uM to 100uM and can be filtered out by most standard surgical masks and likely densely woven or multi-layered cloth masks. Also, the humidity and the rise in temperature inside the properly fitted mask seem to create a barrier for allergens to elicit nasal allergy symptoms. So, while we would like to throw away our face coverings when the pandemic is over, there may be a continued role in using properly fitted multi-layered face coverings to not only reduce viral transmission but also allergy symptoms in those suffering from allergies.
Yes: Allergy season in 2021 has been worse for many others particularly due to ongoing climate change. Climate change has created warmer temperatures that have not only contributed to wildfires but also a longer allergy season where more pollens are produced and able to pollinate. A recent study (by Anderegg et al.) observed an increase in pollen concentration and longer pollen season in response to climate change. Specifically, data from multiple sites across North America for over the last three decades showed that already — the pollen season has been increased by more than 20 days with an increase in pollen concentration by greater than 20 percent. Another study (by Zhang et al.) predicts that pollen counts will double the level of 2000 in 2040. So, what does that mean for us, allergy sufferers? We will likely be dealing with worse allergies as the years go by with longer days of spring and higher amounts of pollen counts.
In short, the 2021 allergy season is both better and worse depending on who you ask. But, keeping your face coverings on when mowing a lawn or hiking may be a good idea. Preparing for worsening allergy seasons ahead is also a good idea. For instance, when pollen counts are high and winds are blowing full speed — stay indoors, close the windows and run your indoor air filtration system. Your eyes and nose will thank you.
Min Lee, MD, FAAAAI, is a board-certified allergy and immunology specialist for Hoag Medical Group. She welcomes both children and adult patients. Some of the common conditions she treats include asthma, eczema, sinusitis, drug and food allergies, and chronic urticaria.