GW MFA Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center Experts Discuss the Impact of Climate Change, COVID-19 on Springtime Allergies

April 14, 2022
Anjeni Keswani, MD; Kirti Johal, MD; Jamie Rosenthal, MD

In Washington, D.C., spring brings rain showers, cherry blossoms, and allergies. Itchy and watery eyes, stuffy and runny noses, and sneezing traditionally mark this time, but climate change is now prolonging and intensifying allergy season. Plus, there is some overlap in symptoms of allergies and COVID-19, which can make treating those symptoms more challenging. Here, Anjeni Keswani, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center at the George Washington University (GW) Medical Faculty Associates (MFA); Kirti Johal, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the GW MFA; and Jamie Rosenthal, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the GW MFA, provide guidance on seasonal allergies and how to feel better.

Why do springtime allergies happen, and how common are they? 

Keswani: We estimate that up to 40% of the population has environmental allergies. When a person with allergic rhinitis breathes in an allergen, such as pollen or mold spores, their body’s immune system creates a reaction. The most common allergens in the spring in Washington, D.C., are tree and grass pollens.

Rosenthal: Some people also have allergies throughout the summer and fall months due to allergies to grass and weed pollen. Seasonal allergies are very common and are becoming more prevalent and severe with global warming.

How has climate change affected people’s allergies?

Keswani: Climate change has caused the pollen seasons to start earlier, last longer, and increase in intensity. New research has shown that annual pollen counts may increase by 250% over the next 30 years. Longer, more intense pollen seasons mean that allergy sufferers may need more individualized treatments for their allergy symptoms.

Johal: In addition to that, more rain may also lead to higher mold counts, which can impact individuals with mold allergies.

What are the symptoms of springtime allergies?

Johal: Common symptoms of springtime allergies include runny nose, stuffy nose, postnasal drip (or the sensation of dripping or irritation in the back of the throat), sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, and itchy nose.

How can people tell the difference between allergies and COVID?

Rosenthal: It may be difficult to tell the difference between allergies and COVID-19. Because the symptoms overlap, it is important to get tested for COVID-19, even if you think your symptoms may be due to allergies.

Johal: Common signs and symptoms of COVID-19 infection include fever, chills, sore throat, dry cough, diarrhea, fatigue, headache, body aches, loss of taste and smell, congestion, or runny nose, among others. Some symptoms of COVID-19 may overlap with environmental allergies, such as runny nose, stuffy nose, postnasal drip, and headache. We would not expect fever or chills with allergies, and generally, symptoms are less abrupt in onset with allergies. Many patients with allergies have experienced similar symptoms in years prior.

What remedies can help people feel better? 

Keswani: There are a variety of options to treat allergies. Avoidance is key. Individuals can monitor pollen counts and stay inside or wear a mask outside on peak pollen days. Washing hands and faces upon coming inside can also reduce an individual’s pollen exposure. Over-the-counter antihistamines or nasal steroid sprays can reduce allergy inflammation and help symptoms. Saline sprays and saline rinses can flush allergens from the nose.

Rosenthal: Some of the over-the-counter medications include oral antihistamines, such as Zyrtec or Allegra, and intranasal steroids, such as Flonase, but it is always better to check with your doctor before starting any new medications.

How can the GW MFA help those struggling with springtime allergies?

Keswani: At the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center at the GW MFA, we can provide a customized treatment plan for allergies. We do allergy testing to determine what someone is allergic to and then recommend individualized avoidance measures and medication plans. Allergen immunotherapy shots can help desensitize patients to their allergens, which is the closest treatment option we have to a “cure” for allergies.

Johal: We are happy to see patients with concerns for consultation.

To make an appointment with an allergist, visit the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center at the GW MFA or call 202-741-2770.

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