The pollen count, now that's a difficult job. Especially if you've got hay fever - Milton Jones
image by: Manna
This spring, for the first time in my 28 years on this Earth, I've suddenly developed seasonal allergies. Let me tell you, it goes far beyond the sniffles. Each person experiences allergies differently, but for me it's a truly unpleasant blend of congestion, itchy throat, and a post-nasal drip (which is just as disgusting as it sounds).
Why have I suddenly been plagued with this suffering after nearly three decades of blissful, allergy-free existence? The answer is in part due to a familiar foe, climate change, and the fact that even a hearty microbiome can't fully shield you from perennial hell.
We've known for awhile that climate change is making allergy season more severe for sufferers, but it may also have a secondary effect: converting ignorant non-sufferers like me into hacking, wheezing, phlegm-buckets like the rest of you.
"Pollen seasons are getting longer and heavier as the Earth warms up," explained Dr. Mitchell Grayson, an allergist at Nationwide Children's Hospital and researcher at Ohio State University. "We also know that allergic diseases have increased. We can't directly link climate change as the cause. We know both of these things are happening and they're happening on the same time scale."
Climate change can impact seasonal allergies in a number of ways. For one, warmer temperatures mean trees and grass that produce the irritating allergenic pollen have longer seasons when they're pollinating. Studies have also shown that as the level of carbon dioxide in the air increases, the amount and potency of pollen that these plants release also increases.
Cities, like the one where I live, are also more likely to be choked with CO2, so even though there are fewer plants, the ones that are here are pumping out pollen by the pound.
Longer seasons with more potent pollen helps explain why so many lifelong sufferers might feel their symptoms getting worse, but it could also explain why some of us are experiencing symptoms for the first time. Grayson explained that people who are sensitized to a particular allergen don't always show symptoms until they're reached a certain threshold of exposure.
"If you think of a bucket, and every time you're exposed to an allergen you dump some water in the bucket," Grayson said. "But you have no symptoms until the bucket overflows. You could have been sensitized as a child, but the bucket never overflowed until now."
Grayson couldn't say for certain that climate change is making more people suffer from allergy symptoms, partly because we don't fully understand why some adults suddenly develop allergies at all. There is a genetic predisposition to allergies, but exactly what tips you over the edge or not is unclear.
There's also good evidence that your microbiome—the unique colony of bacteria that lives in and on your body—plays a role, but it's not an exact determinant. Kids born and raised on a farm, delivered through a natural birth, who were breastfed, and did not need antibiotics in the first year of life are less likely to experience allergies in childhood, according to Marie-Claire Arrieta, a microbiome researcher at the University of Calgary, and co-author of Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World.
But all of those were true for me, so why am I hacking up stuff now?
"With allergies, we're talking about odds," Arrieta said. "Some factor might increase your odds of developing a disease, but that doesn't mean we need that factor to be there in order for someone to get that disease."
It could mean almost anybody is at risk, especially as climate changes causes pollen seasons to continue getting longer and more intense. So if you're feeling smug about the fact that you've been spared, take it from a recent convert: it sucks, and you may soon be eating humble pie—if you can breath through your clogged up nose long enough to take a bite.
Source: Kaleigh Rogers, It's Not Just You: We ALL Have Seasonal Allergies Now, Vice, May 18, 2017.