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Allergies Getting Worse? Blame the 'Pollen Vortex'

As seasonal allergen counts rise, more adults may have symptoms

Road sign in the woods


It's not your imagination: Year after year, pollen counts are rising, resulting in aggravated symptoms for seasonal allergy sufferers — and increasing the likelihood that previously allergy-free older adults may notice symptoms for the first time in their lives.

"We are seeing increased pollen counts with the change in climate,” says Janna Tuck, M.D., an allergist and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Pollen is not only appearing earlier in the season, she says, but it's sticking around longer, too.

A study published in March in The Lancet Planetary Health found that airborne pollen counts have gone up around the world in recent decades. Analysis of 17 locations across three continents found that the majority have seen an increase in both the amount of pollen and the duration of pollen season over the last 20 years.

That uptick, which can result in what Tuck calls a “pollen vortex,” could mean increased risk for those who are already genetically susceptible to the pollen allergies that plague millions of Americans each spring.

"I see people of both sexes and of all ages presenting with new-onset allergies,” Tuck says. “It's profoundly confusing to people."

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According to the National Center for Health Statistic's 2017 National Health Interview Survey, approximately 10 percent of adults ages 65 to 74, and 8 percent of those 75 and older, experience hay fever, another term for pollen allergies, or what experts call “seasonal allergic rhinitis.”

If you're uncertain whether you're experiencing seasonal allergies for the first time, watch for symptoms — such as itchy eyes — that distinguish allergies from other ailments like the cold and flu.

Another allergy hallmark that experts point to is recurrence. If you've noticed that you always seem to catch a lingering cold in May, for example, allergies may be the true culprit.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, grasses are the most common cause of seasonal pollen allergies, which can occur through the spring, summer and fall, depending on the allergen. Ragweed and other weeds, as well as the pollen from certain tree species, including oak, birch and cedar, can also be highly allergenic.

For new and longtime allergy sufferers alike, age-related changes such as drier nasal passages, can affect how symptoms manifest. According to board-certified allergist Ronald Saff, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine, older adults are more likely to experience postnasal drip, nasal drainage and coughing, while younger people have more frequent sneezing and itchy noses.

As with any ailment, both Tuck and Saff say that any troubling symptoms, or those that don't get better with over-the-counter treatment, warrant a trip to the doctor or allergist.