Be greater than your allergies
THE SCIENCE BEHIND ALLERGIES
Provided by The Weather Channel
Just blocks from New York’s Central Park, Lindsey Berkhahn suffers from intense pollen allergies that are just getting started as spring begins to sweep through the picturesque city. Her worst symptoms? A trifecta of itchy eyes, watery eyes and a runny nose.
For Berkhahn and the millions of allergy sufferers across the country, in the spring, snow and ice are replaced by something completely different: an Allergy StormTM.
THE BIOLOGY OF AN ALLERGY STORM™
Pollen first enters the environment when wind pollinated plants begin the pollination process. This happens in spring when nature starts to wake up thanks to warmer weather.
For many people, the immune system sees allergens like pollen as a harmless substance, but for pollen allergy sufferers, the immune system is sensitive to the seemingly innocuous object and, according to pollen.com, “overreacts when defending itself.” Equip yourself for the season’s Allergy StormTM with knowledge on how and why your body reacts the way it does.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, your genetic code determines how your body reads allergens to figure out if they’re threatening. If they misread an allergen like pollen and determine that it’s threatening, immunoglobulin (IgE) antibodies are produced and targeted to the allergen.
The first time this happens, your system is being sensitized to the allergen so that it’s prepared the next time the foreign particle enters your system. Per the AAFA, when your body deems an allergen to be an unwelcome intruder it sets off a chain reaction: your T cells stimulate the B cells, which then develop plasma cells, which produce the IgEs that are released to combat the allergen.
Once out and about in your immune system, IgEs bind with your mast cells and basophils throughout the entire body causing a sensitizing exposure. Both contain histamines, which, should you encounter that allergen again, are now primed to release and wreak havoc.
After sensitizing exposure has been present for one week to 10 days, the next exposure of the same allergen triggers a domino effect of events within the immune system. According to the experts from “Brainstorm,” histamines unleash “a signal that travels to the brain stem’s medulla in less than 2 milliseconds, triggering a sneeze center in the brain. Once this sneeze center is activated, your body choreographs a sequence of events to try and remove the irritation as quickly as possible.”
This is one type of allergic reaction the body generates to foreign particles like pollen. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, eight percent of adults suffer from pollen allergies. Their symptoms can range from coughing and sneezing to itchy and watery eyes, all of which make Berkhahn victim to the brewing Allergy StormTM.
THE PAIN OF POLLEN
The 33-year-old civil engineer has had pollen allergies for nearly her whole life. She remembers first getting them when she was about 10 years old living in North Carolina. They were fairly manageable as she moved around the Southeast, but when she arrived in New York from Florida three years ago, things went from bad to worse.
“I think they have gotten worse over time,” she said, “but I also think that with the different types of trees, maybe I’m more allergic to what is common up here.”
According to Dr. James Sublett, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, this is entirely possible. “Once you’re in your adult life, you can move around and have different exposures,” which can affect your symptoms, he said.
“The beginning of all the seasons, before you actually realize that they’re out there, that’s when they’re the worst,” she said. “When everything comes into bloom, once it warms up it will get really bad. And then in the fall, it’s just whenever everything starts falling from the trees that it gets really bad.”
Although her move to New York may have something to do with her worsening symptoms, Berkhahn attributes some of the noticeable difference in her symptoms to her lifestyle in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“I live in New York now and I sleep with the windows open a lot,” she explained, “and we have the window unit air conditioners, so you always have a connection to the outside. And then you’re walking around so much.”
To many, all of that fresh air might sound like a dream, but for Berkhahn it can be a nightmare. If she doesn’t take her treatment, sleeping with all of the windows open means she is susceptible to those allergens all night long.
“I wake up and my eyes will be crusted over in sleep and I can have difficulty breathing,” she said, adding that it can make her all of her symptoms—itchy eyes, watery eyes and a runny
While she has seen doctors about her allergies in the past, she currently uses over-the-counter medications. By now, Berkhahn has her symptoms and the allergy seasons pretty well figured out, but said that predicting the start of her symptoms is still a guessing game. To help, Berkhahn says she does turn to an allergy forecaster like the Allergy Tracker, in partnership with Flonase Allergy Relief. “Whenever my allergies are really bad I’ll look at the forecast and think, ‘oh that’s why!’”
Another factor that might be making her symptoms worse? The spring allergy season seems to be starting earlier and getting more intense year after year.
EFFECTS OF A CHANGING PLANET
Dr. Clifford Bassett, founder and medical director at Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, told weather.com that there are a few different factors causing the allergy seasons to start earlier and seem more intense. “One is the rising long term increase in carbon dioxide and its effect on increased production of pollen,” and the other is a phenomenon he calls the “priming effect.”
The National Wildlife Federation, in conjunction with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, found that ragweed, the primary trigger for fall allergies and hay fever “has higher allergenic content under increased carbon dioxide levels.” Their research leads them to believe, “springtime allergies to tree pollens also could get worse.”
These observations are directly tied to climate change. “Because carbon dioxide is essential for plant survival, many plants can grow faster and larger as carbon dioxide levels increase,” the NWF wrote. “Across the country, spring arrives an average of 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago.”
As for Berkhahn’s worsening symptoms following her move to New York City? The research found that the impact of climate change on ragweed pollen is amplified in urban areas more so than their rural counterparts. “Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure can make cities several degrees warmer than surrounding rural areas,” and, the publication goes on to note, “one study found that ragweed production could be seven times higher than surrounding rural regions for a city that averaged 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer and had 30 percent more carbon dioxide.”
Heavy precipitation is also a factor in an early and robust pollen season. “In some studies, a very heavy precipitation during the fall and winter may be enough to enhance the pollen production, particularly in grass pollen,” Dr. Bassett said. “So we may see more grass pollens flowering early and more robustly from a very heavy precipitation in fall and winter, which we’ve seen in many areas. When plants are under stress, they may make more flowers and less leaves and therefore they’ll be more pollen.”
Then, according to Dr. Bassett, you also have to take into account the priming effect, which is when temperatures make big leaps in small periods of time. In spring especially is when you’re more likely to see the temperature swing back and forth between nice 60 and 70 degree days, then back down to 30 or 40 degrees for a few days. “That’s when people really start to suffer,”
Dr. Bassett said.
The constant temperature swing causes your body to “[rev] up the immune system and further on down the road, you’re going to be even more hypersensitive or hyperactive to the new pollen.”
So for Berkhahn, was moving to New York the perfect storm for her worsening allergies? It would seem so.
From the obvious environmental difference between the Northeast and the Southeast to the impact of global warming and the priming effect causing a more intense allergy season, it’s no wonder she’s going through the day with worse symptoms than ever before.