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Pollen payback: Mild winter means more sneezing, and sooner

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 6:00 AM - Early spring for some. Late spring for others. With the weird weather patterns so far this year, what will allergy season be like across Canada? Here's the breakdown of who could be getting the worst of it.

Is anyone feeling it? The scratchy throat. The itchy eyes? That insistent urge to sneeze?

Allergy season is upon us, but who's seeing it early, who should be getting it late, and where could it be the worst?

The weather over the past couple of months - the most important span of time going into the beginning of the pollen season for trees - has been a little unusual across Canada, to say the least.

• Snowstorms replaced the normally mild weather for Vancouver and the rest of southwestern British Columbia,
• a fairly cold, typical late winter across the Prairies, except for the week-long warm up in late February,
• an early warm-up for southern Ontario and southern Quebec, followed by a roller-coaster of freezes and thaws in March, and
• repeated hits by snowstorms and blizzards for the Maritimes.

So, how are things expected to play out for allergy season, given the weather we've been experiencing so far?

Seasonal allergies are highly variable from one person to another, as the pollen from different species of trees and plants have different impacts and even two people allergic to the same pollen may have different levels of response. According to Dawn Jurgens, Director of Operations for Aerobiology Research Laboratories, though, if everyone has fairly typical spring weather going forward, here's the kind of allergy season we're likely to see:

In southwestern British Columbia - slightly delayed, possibly elevated later in the season. The snowstorms the blew over the area have caused a delay in the start of the season, so pollen counts from early pollinators - Alder, Cedar and Poplar - have been low, but are now going through a peak with the warmer weather. This delay in the season is expected to cause a slight overlap with late pollinators, which may cause elevated pollen counts around mid-season, but Jurgens notes that it is typical for the area to see some overlap.

For the Prairie provinces - early start, but near normal. The brief warm spell in late February may have primed the trees to go off, for as soon as the cold weather abated in March, pollen counts began to climb rapidly. As they stand now, some areas are roughly a month "ahead of schedule" in their pollen levels, but overall, if there's a fairly typical spring, the rest of the pollen season should be near normal.

In southern Ontario and southern Quebec - early start, but now back on track for normal season. The pollen season actually started quite early in this areas, due to the stretch of very mild weather in the latter half of February. While that seemed to herald a long, drawn-out season, when cold, snowy weather returned to these regions in March, it caused the trees to stop releasing pollen. Now, with the weather having warmed up again, pollen counts are climbing and it looks like it may actually turn out to be a fairly typical season, going forward.

For the Maritimes - starting late, mid-season could be bad. Repeated blasts of cold, snowy weather have continued right up until this week, so this is the one region of the country that is likely to be seeing a late start to pollen season. The catch here is that the Maritimes are usually later than the rest of the country for pollen, so it may not feel much different for residents there, once it starts. The only problem is that this late start may mean that the early pollinators may overlap with the late pollinators around mid-season, making things difficult for those who are sensitive to more than one kind of tree pollen.

This "forecast" will be mostly affected by temperatures, so if there is a significant cold snap in any of these regions, that will put pollen release on pause for the early species of trees. If that happens, it could result in an overlap with the late pollinators that could be bad for some seasonal allergy sufferers.

YOUR POLLEN OUTLOOK: Follow this link, find your location and click to see the pollen outlook for the next three days.

Some things to keep in mind during allergy season

Seasonal allergies are often called "hay fever", yet the symptoms have nothing to do with hay. This name comes from an old, and incorrect association with the smell of fresh hay in the air in springtime. Also, while we tend to see images (especially in commercials) of sneezing people standing in fields of flowers, most flowers have very little to do with allergy season.

In springtime, it's actually trees that cause most allergic reactions. Cedars, Alder, Poplar and Maples are the early pollinators, usually starting in March or April, although they can and so start earlier if the weather permits. Ash, Oak, Pines and Birch are the most common late pollinators, which usually get going in late April or May. An early spring can get the late pollinators started earlier than usual, but the effect isn't as strong as is for earlier pollinators.

Regardless of similarities in weather and general trends in pollen counts, pollen seasons can still be very different from year to year. The amount of pollen a tree species produces is dependent on the weather they experienced during the previous year's summer and fall. If the weather was favourable, they may have a large supply of pollen to release when they finally get their chance in spring, and if it was unfavourable, there will be less pollen to release, no matter how the spring plays out.

Trees are the main seasonal allergy in spring, however, there are other sources of seasonal allergies throughout the year. Grass pollen is typically responsible for allergic reactions during June and July, after the trees are usually done. Mould spores and fungal spores cause reactions as well - most commonly in summer and fall, although they can occur at any time of year - and of all the seasonal allergies, these two receive the least amount of attention. Ragweed is a very common allergen in late summer and early fall, because it is not only highly allergenic, but it also has a high degree of cross allergenicity, meaning that if you are allergic to one species of ragweed, you will very likely be allergic to all of the roughly 50 species of it that are found throughout North America. Most flowers have pollen that is too heavy to be carried on the wind, and thus they rely on insects to spread their pollen. Some flowers, though, such as those in the daisy family (asters, chamomile, chrysanthemums, dahlias, daisies and ordinary sunflowers), as well as amaranth and goldenrod, are known to cause reasons, although exactly when they flower varies from species to species.

As mentioned above, seasonal allergies are highly individual, so exactly what will cause a reaction can vary quite differently from person to person. Thus, for those who put up with seasonal allergies each year, it's important to have an idea of what you may be reacting to.

Some species of tree, such as Alder, Birch and Oak, tend to cause allergic reactions more than species like Maples and Poplar. Also, while one species of tree may be putting out a very large amount of pollen, others may be releasing far less. Watching the pollen forecasts from day to day and comparing them to how you feel could help identify which species you react to most. A visit to your doctor, to be specifically tested for allergies, would make it far more clear.

Sources: Aerobiology Research Laboratories | With files from The Weather Network

RELATED: For more on Allergies in the News, click here.

Watch Below: Spring allergies, how you can fight them better

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