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The Weather: Wreaking Havoc on Health

The weather forecast may be a strong predictor of how you're going to feel.
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WebMD Feature

We all know people who blame the weather for their achy joints, killer headaches, and many other health woes. But proving these claims has been a bit more elusive.

In recent years, however, scientists have become increasingly interested in attempting to understand just how various weather extremes and changing patterns affect our health. Many experts say that weather does account for some adverse health symptoms.

WebMD talked to experts to learn just what is known about weather's role on our health and what we can do to minimize its mighty influence.

Allergies: Is It Pollen or the Weather?

The image of someone sneezing uncontrollably during springtime, when lots of pollen is floating around in the air, is a familiar one. And for people who have allergies to pollen, an uptick in symptoms during the spring -- including sneezing, stuffiness, and even difficulty breathing -- is a very real problem that can pose serious risks. Several studies show a surge in emergency room visits for children and adults during seasons when pollen counts rise. For those folks allergic to pollen from flowers, trees, and grasses, antihistamines often quell the symptoms that would otherwise make spring a miserable season.

But plenty of people attribute their allergy-like symptoms to pollen when the weather -- not allergens per se -- may be to blame. Unlike allergic rhinitis, non-allergic rhinitis can be brought on by sudden changes in temperature and humidity. People with nonallergic rhinitis would test negative for any specific allergies.

The reason for the confusion between allergic and nonallergic rhinitis is simple. They both tend to occur at the same time of year and produce similar symptoms: swollen nasal passages, sneezing, and congestion.

Though the symptoms may be the same, the treatment is not.

"People with nonallergic rhinitis are not going to respond to antihistamines," says Jonathan Bernstein, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati. "People buy this stuff and don't understand why it's not working."

For his patients with nonallergic rhinitis, Bernstein generally recommends nasal irrigation (a saline solution sprayed in the nose), a nasal steroid to shrink swollen nasal passages, or decongestants.

But before using any treatment, Bernstein strongly urges people suffering from allergy-like symptoms to get a diagnosis from their doctor rather than self-diagnosing and medicating. "Is it due to viruses, humidity, cold temperatures? We try to evaluate the condition as a whole," Bernstein tells WebMD.

Cold Weather, Thunderstorms Can Trigger Asthma Attacks

For people with asthma, a variety of triggers can result in inflamed airways, provoking an asthma attack. It turns out weather is one of them.

With exercise-induced asthma, cold weather can signal trouble. "When breathing in fast, the air they exchange doesn't have a chance to warm up," says David Hagaman, MD, medical director at the Vanderbilt Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Program. As a result, the increased cooling of the airway triggers the airway to react by swelling.

For the many asthma patients who list pollen as a primary trigger, thunderstorms can be a real problem. A recent study in the journal Allergy described how wind in thunderstorms carries pollen grains at ground level that get into the lower part of the airway, sending high numbers of asthma patients to hospitals for the treatment of asthma attacks.

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