Image: Pollen Counts High in New York City
Chris Hondros  /  Getty Images file
Seasons are getting longer and that means pollens are being released earlier.
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updated 5/5/2011 5:03:50 PM ET 2011-05-05T21:03:50

The 2011 spring allergy season is shaping up to be a miserable one, with pollen levels reaching record highs, thanks to heavy winter snows, early spring rains, and an early spring warm-up. Sound familiar? Just a year ago, the 2010 allergy season was the "worst on record" for many of the same reasons. So should we expect each spring allergy season to be worse than the last, in an eternal one-upmanship that sends us running for the tissue box or the asthma inhaler?

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Probably so. And the pattern could hold true for fall allergies as well. A study published in January's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the length of ragweed season in various areas of the country increased by as much as 27 days between 1995 and 2009. The culprit? Climate change, the researchers said.

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"The seasons are getting longer — they're starting earlier and pollens are getting released earlier," says Stanley Fineman, MD, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and an allergist at the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic. "And not only is there warmer weather, there tends to be more CO2 in atmosphere." CO2, or carbon dioxide, feeds plants and leads to a greater release of pollen, and sometimes that pollen is more potent and more allergenic than it was when there was less CO2 in the atmosphere.

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But Dr. Fineman points to another impact of climate change, and one you may not have ever associated with asthma or allergies — thunderstorms. Climatologists have noted that climate change will lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of severe storms, and Dr. Fineman says that quite a few studies have linked thunderstorms to a greater incidence of asthma-related hospitalizations. It's called "thunderstorm asthma," and although doctors haven't pinned its cause to a specific element in severe weather, they suspect it has something to do with all the pollen and particulate matter that thunderstorms stir up.

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Ironically, one solution for resolving both climate change and the worsening allergies it causes is the painfully high gas prices we've all had to pay recently. According to a few surveys released in early April, sales of gasoline are on the decline, dropping roughly 3.5 percent from the year before. That means people are driving less and their cars are spewing fewer pollutants, including CO2, into the air. "Studies have shown that if we can reduce the amount of pollution and exhaust fumes, we can reduce the problems that people with allergies and asthma have," Dr. Fineman says. "It's less likely to cause flare-ups."

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Managing your allergies on a day-to-day basis may, however, be easier and offer a more immediate solution than trying to solve climate change. And it's important to keep them from getting out of control. Past research has linked allergies to problems as diverse as poor sleep, clinical depression, and even low sex drive. "There's no question about it," Dr. Fineman says. "People with allergies feel run-down, have difficulty concentrating, and don't have as much energy as they normally do. When you feel that way, it affects your whole mood."

Here are five tips for coping with your spring allergies:

Know the triggers. Just because you sneeze during spring doesn't necessarily mean you're allergic to May flowers, or even pollen for that matter. You could be allergic to mold or fungus, both of which are exacerbated by April showers. Grass and trees are other common spring allergy triggers, and knowing your enemy will help you learn what to avoid. Dr. Fineman recommends visiting an allergist and getting a skin prick test, which is the most accurate way to diagnose an allergy.

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Then, avoid them. Keeping your windows shut and staying indoors on dry and windy days, when pollen is more likely to get blown around, will help if you're allergic to pollen. But staying inside on rainy or excessively humid days could help, too, if mold is what triggers your allergies. Though rain washes pollen away, "fungus and mold spores love the humidity," Dr. Fineman says. "That's why it's important to find out what's triggering your allergy."

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Get help from a goat. Goats can mow your grass for you, saving you the hassle of dealing with allergenic grass clippings. Neti pots, those strange-looking teapot-type things you see in natural health stores, have been scientifically shown to reduce allergy symptoms. Not convinced? Try one of these other natural allergy remedies.

Evict chemicals from your kitchen. Certain household chemicals can aggravate or even cause both indoor and outdoor allergies. The primary culprit is triclosan, the active ingredient in antibacterial soaps. Scientists from the University of Michigan recently found that people who commonly used products containing the ingredient were more likely to suffer from allergies or hay fever.

Watch what you eat. People who are allergic to pollen can also have oral allergy syndrome, which affects about a third of seasonal allergy sufferers. Your immune system sees a similarity between the proteins of pollen and those in some foods, such as apples, cherries, pears, apricots, kiwis, plums, or nuts. Avoid these when your allergy symptoms are at their worst, and opt instead for leafy greens (spinach, collard greens, and kale, for instance) and citrus fruits, all of which are full of allergy-fighting folic acid.

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