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Pollen 'Explosion' Has U.S. Sneezing

FAQ on Pollen and Allergy: Some Surprising Answers
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

pollen_allergy_faq.jpg

April 19, 2010 -- Pollen has choked most of the U.S. in an unusually intense spring allergy season.

Is it the worst ever? What can you do about it? Which allergy treatments work best, and how do they work? Prepare for some surprises in WebMD's pollen/allergy FAQ.

Is the 2010 spring pollen season the worst ever for allergy sufferers?

In some parts of the U.S. -- the tree-lined city of Atlanta, for example -- the amount of tree pollen in the air hit near-record levels.

"It's a pollen explosion," Weather.com meteorologist Tim Ballisty tells WebMD. "In Atlanta, the pollen count was up in the 5,000s, when 120 is a high level. And other cities in the Southeast, the Midwest, and the Northeast had off-the-charts pollen levels, too."

What happened? A "perfect storm of conditions conducive to bring pollen into the air," arborist Peter Gerstenberger, senior advisor to the Tree Care Industry Association, tells WebMD. "It has a lot to do with temperatures over a period of time that can cause a tree to create a lot of pollen. It has a lot to do with wind speed, and it has a lot to do with precipitation."

This perfect storm, Ballisty says, had several ingredients:

  • A long, cold winter dumped huge amounts of snow and rain across much of the nation. Trees got plenty of water, unlike recent drought years in the Southeast.
  • Spring arrived late. When it came, it brought hot, dry, summer-like conditions "compressing the pollen season," according to horticulturist Amanda Campbell of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Ballisty notes that this April broke 1,800 high-temperature records across the nation.
  • Spring was summer-like not only because temperatures were unusually high, but because a ridge of high pressure funneled moisture away from the eastern half of the nation for extended periods. Rain washes the pollen from the air. Although pollen levels quickly rebound after rain, dry periods keep pollen blowing in the wind.

So has this been the worst spring allergy season ever? No, says Gerry Kress, vice president of SDI, the medical data company behind Pollen.com and other health information tools.

As of mid-April, Kress says, SDI calculates that about 24.7 million Americans have been affected by pollen and, to a much smaller extent, mold. Last year at this time, the number was a bit higher: about 24.8 million spring allergy sufferers.

"Pollen counts are useless. What does a count of 2,000 really mean? So we say look at the number of people affected," Kress says. "And in certain parts of the country, like the Northeast, where it seems everyone says they're dying from the pollen, the rest of the country is about the same. ... It's just that in certain areas of the country, pollen just exploded."

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