It’s Not Your Imagination. Your Allergies Are Getting Worse.

It’s spring, and I love spring more than I love almost anything else about the natural world, but I don’t love the pollen. My eyes itch. My nose is stopped up. First thing in the morning I sneeze. Last thing at night I sneeze. My husband turns away from me to sleep because the pollen grains clinging to my hair make him sneeze, too.

I was never prone to seasonal allergies before I moved to Middle Tennessee, which is not even one of the 10 most challenging places for allergy sufferers in this country. I am now up to three over-the-counter medications a day, and I have developed a tiny dependence on Fisherman’s Friend lozenges, which work a bit like the Vicks VapoRub of my childhood memories. Vicks is still around — the comedian Wanda Sykes has a wonderful bit about it — but Fisherman’s Friend doesn’t announce my presence in advance the way Vicks would.

I also drink gallons of an herbal tea labeled “congestion relief,” though I no longer believe that relief is possible. The hill of spring allergies, which in Middle Tennessee used to be on the downslope by now, has become an all-year mountain, with tree pollen and grass pollen and ragweed pollen rolling together in great clouds from late February right up till Thanksgiving.

But it’s worse in spring. I can stand at my back door and watch a white pine like this one sending out waves of pollen that remind me of the crop-duster scene in “North by Northwest.” In spring, my glasses are coated with pollen outside and in. In spring, my little red Nissan Leaf looks like a little orange Leaf, and the gray boards of our back deck look as though they’ve grown a coating of new moss.

The only relief for any of it is a good soaking rain, but the reprieve of rain is only temporary. Increased rainfall prolongs the blooming season of many trees, grasses and other plants. (Most wildflowers are pollinated by insects and therefore aren’t prime allergy-inducers, but some, like ragweed, are wind-pollinated, which means they literally throw their pollen to the winds — and into human faces.) A prolonged blooming season in turn allows plants to produce more pollen.

Seasonal allergies are nothing new, but they’ve been worsening as the climate grows warmer. The growing season starts earlier now — in North America an average of 20 days earlier — and lasts longer, too, extending the length of time when plants are pumping pollen into the air. And the resulting misery arises not just because there’s more pollen to breathe in or because it’s around for increasingly longer seasons. At least one study has indicated that the more carbon there is in the air, the more potent the pollen itself is.

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