'Polar vortex' may be causing a 'pollen vortex' this spring

May 16, 2014

The polar vortex is a term many of us learned for the first time this winter. But what you may not know is that the cold, long winter could be the reason so many people are sneezing right now. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Dr. Linda Cox, an allergist and immunologist who is president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, about what's being called the "pollen vortex."

Lorraine Rapp: What is it about a long and severe winter that sets us up for an extreme allergy season?

Dr. Linda Cox: Well, the first class of allergens that pollinate are the trees. And for trees to pollinate there needs to be what’s called a warm-up phase that’s long enough for the trees to put out their leaves, and thus pollen. This year, we’ve had an unusually long and cold winter, thus it’s a delay in the trees pollinating. So you’re getting a later start on the allergy season. You have early pollinating trees and late pollinating trees. So now there’s more different types of trees pollinating at the same time. And then you’re going to get some overlap with the other classes of allergens; the second class to come out is the grass pollen, which typically starts in May. So you’re going to have more classes of pollen all out at the same time. For individuals that are only allergic to a single tree, this may not be a problem. But if you have more than type of allergy and they’re all in the air at the same time, you’re going to get more symptomatic because you’re having a high load of allergen exposure.

Lorraine Rapp: So does a more intense start mean a longer allergy season or possibly as short as always, just getting started with a bang?

Dr. Linda Cox: It will seem longer to the person experiencing it, but it will be the same duration.

Linda Lowen: So, if we’re suffering from it. And I’ll say this, there were a couple of days recently when I thought, ‘oh, they’re pollinating,’ because I had a runny nose, I had congestion. And it came upon us all of a sudden. And in the midst of this I thought, ‘do I really need to start the medication?’ What else can we do to reduce the damage, let’s call it? What can we ourselves do to prevent this intense exposure?

Dr. Linda Cox: Well, I really hate to say this, because it goes against what we try to do with chronic diseases like asthma, which is get people to lead as normal a life as possible. But avoidance is always the best strategy with allergies. So, if people are very sensitive to pollen and it’s pollen season, we actually recommend them to stay indoors as much as possible. Keep your windows closed in the car and at home. And if you were to go outside, and you were to ask me the best time to go outside, for exercise or walking, probably it would be early morning. The different classes of allergen kind of peak at different times of the day. Ragweed being early morning, but it comes out as a clump and then as the air dries out more, it becomes more airborne later in the day. And the same with trees, there’s different times of the day. But the safest time of the day, if one were to push me, I would say, early morning.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.