Mild winter to blame for early pollen release in southern Ontario

One researcher says climate change could be extending allergy season

If you feel your allergies are acting up early, it's not just in your head.

An exceptionally warm winter in southern Ontario has trees releasing pollen sooner this year, and one researcher says climate change could be extending allergy season.

The early start to the allergy season is bad news for Stephen Spong, a university librarian in London, Ont., who says in recent weeks, he's already started sniffling while working in his garden.

"I've been noticing that we've been getting blooms," he said, noting that for him, "freshly blooming plants and an uptick in allergies" tend to go together.

Spong, who has three different pollen allergy prescriptions, said his seasonal allergies seem to start a little earlier each year.

"As I've gotten older, the sort of shoulder periods have expanded."

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More than a feeling, data suggests

The data suggests that's more than just a feeling.

Allergy season in Ontario usually starts in March with low levels of pollen first released by trees. But cedar trees are already releasing high levels of pollen, according to Aerobiology Research Laboratories, which collects daily pollen samples at stations across Canada.

Daniel Coates, a marketing and business development director with the company, said the mild winter is behind an early allergen season.

This winter was the warmest on record in Toronto, caused by a combination of El Niño and climate change, according to Environment Canada. Temperatures reached 20 C in the city in the first week of March.

"Pollen loves warm weather," Coates said. "Climate change is bringing more warm weather for longer periods of time, hence more pollen for longer periods of time."

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Coping with a longer allergy season

Dr. Rae Brager, an allergist and associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said patients are requesting their allergy medications early this year.

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"It's astounding how much pollen is already circulating in the environment," she said. "My allergist colleagues and I are exclaiming to each other that we've never seen pollen this early before.

"So it definitely seems like, at least this year, this season is going to be starting early and maybe extended."

Brager said people with pollen allergies can take steps to limit their symptoms, including:

  • Closing windows when pollen levels are high.

  • Showering after being outdoors.

  • Wearing wraparound sunglasses that keep pollen out of the eyes.

  • The Aerobiology Research Laboratories posts a daily pollen forecast online.

For people experiencing severe symptoms, Brager suggests checking with a doctor to see if there are treatments beyond over-the-counter medications that can bring relief.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Lauren Pelley/CBC.

This article, written by Ethan Lang, was originally published for CBC News.

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