Ah-choo! Area experiencing worst pollen season in years

Warm spring days, flowers in bloom and dramatic reductions in coronavirus cases may tempt many local residents to seek opportunities to spend time in the fresh air. Allergy sufferers, however, may have a reason to hesitate before planning outdoor recreation. The Atlanta area is in the midst of one of its worst spring allergy seasons ever, according to Dr. Howard Silk of Atlanta Allergy & Asthma’s Tucker office.

Silk explained that the number of days during an allergy season in which the pollen count exceeds 1,000 is a measure of how bad the season is. A pollen count measures the number of grains of pollen in a cubic meter of air. Locally, people are most affected by tree and grass pollen, he said, and when there’s lots of rain, mold may be an issue as well.

While the extent to which pollen affects a sufferer varies with the individual, generally a count below 50 is considered low, according to medicinenet.com, and a count of more than 1,000 is considered “extremely high.”

In mid-April the area had already experienced more than 20 days in which the pollen count exceeded 1,000, Silk noted, adding that in the previous four years, the total number of days with counts above 1,000 rarely reached 20 for the entire season. “And we have four to six more weeks before the season is over,” Silk pointed out. By comparison, the 2017 spring allergy season had 19 days with pollen counts above 1,000; 2018 had 20 such days; 2019 had 15 and 2020 had 16.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research, education, advocacy, and support for people with asthma, allergies, and related conditions, ranks the Atlanta area among its top 50 “Allergy Capitals” this year.

April 14, which had a local pollen count of 1,162, marked the 40th day this spring season on which the daily pollen count has reached either the high or extremely high range. This includes 20 days that had a count in the “extremely high”—more than 1,000—range. Silk said those numbers are significant at this point in the season as tree pollen is usually a major contributor in the total count well into May.

On Feb. 23, the Atlanta area had its first spike of tree pollen. Since then, 87 percent of the total number of days Atlanta Allergy & Asthma recorded the pollen count have fallen in the high or extremely high range.

“Last year was also a bad allergy season, but people were staying indoors in large numbers because of the coronavirus, so fewer were suffering as much from the high pollen count,” Silk said.

A recent article in the New York Times reported that some experts believe that masks being worn to reduce exposure to coronavirus may also reduce exposure to pollen. The article adds, however, that masks cover the nose and mouth but not the eyes, thus offering only partial protection.

Atlanta Allergy & Asthma reports that Silk and his colleagues are seeing record numbers of first-time allergy patients, noting that they “are seeing a high number of patients this season with significant symptoms, including sneezing, itchy eyes, and feeling run down.” Allergy sufferers who previously found over-the-counter medicines adequate to control their symptoms are finding that they need more this year, Silk said.

He said that patients who suffer from spring allergies should be less concerned with the highest numbers in a season, but rather the number of days in the season with counts in the high or extremely high range. “A long allergy season means more exposure over a longer period of time. Symptoms that initially are just uncomfortable may lead to more serious problems. For example, asthma could worsen.” 

That’s one reason sufferers should seek professional help if over-the-counter medicines aren’t bringing relief, according to Silk. “Your allergist can provide effective treatments. There is no reason to just suffer,” he said.


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