March 5, 2013 -- Spring allergy season is again off to an early start in many parts of the country, and doctors say there are some signs it may be even more miserable than usual this year.
Last year was the fourth warmest winter on record, with consistently mild temperatures. That led to record-breaking pollen counts that struck about a month earlier than normal in some places.
But this year, many areas got a false spring. Temperatures rose briefly and then dipped again. The swings caused pollen levels to rise, then fall, then rise again.
That pattern of pollen release sets people with allergies up for something called "the priming effect," says Stanley M. Fineman, MD, an Atlanta-based allergist and past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
“When patients are exposed, then the pollen goes away for a while, there’s a weather change or whatever, then they are re-exposed to that pollen, they can have an even more significant effect because their system is primed to respond,” Fineman says.
“It results in patients having a lot more difficulty with significantly worse symptoms” that may be tougher to get under control, he says.
Some parts of the South and East Coast began logging high tree pollen counts in January. Then pollen levels dropped in early February before climbing again by the end of the month. Plenty of allergy-prone people were caught unprepared.
At the Allergy and Asthma Center of Georgetown, in Texas, doctors say they began seeing people with seasonal allergies about a month earlier than usual.
“The typical symptoms are congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, watery eyes, sore throat, itchy throat, headaches, itchy ears,” not to mention all the patients who have asthma that’s triggered by allergies, says Sheila Amar, MD. “It’s pretty miserable."