Climate change could hike pollen counts, allergy rates

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the fall ragweed season has expanded by up to 27 days as late fall temperatures increase. Ragweed pollen production has risen 60 percent to 90 percent, while its potency has likewise increased. It's also shifted from a rural problem to an urban one, since cities have higher temperatures and higher concentrations of CO2.

Slow start this year

In Newport News, pediatrician and allergist Ann Zilliox said she usually has "lots of miserable, tree pollen-allergic folks" in her office in March. Not this year. She blames — or credits — the cold, rainy weather.

"Nobody's been outside to experience it," Zilliox said. "If a tree falls in the forest and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound? If there's tree pollen outside and nobody's around to breathe it in …"

But she cautioned against being lulled by the mild start to the allergy season. There's a difference between short-term weather and long-term climate, she said, and "really good data" supports warming temperatures and higher CO2 levels, both of which tend to drive up pollen counts and, by extension, allergy statistics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16.9 million adults and 6.7 million children had diagnosed hay fever in 2012.

"All the numbers for every allergic disease have been rising for quite some time now," Zilliox said. "I imagine it'll get worse."

Whether there's a limit to how much worse depends on how radically different the climate becomes in the long term, if very different plants show up and what pollens they bring. At this point, she said, it's hard to prognosticate.

"We've never been here before," Zilliox said.

To limit your exposure to pollens

•Keep track of pollen levels and alerts in your area

•Keep windows closed during pollen season, especially during the day

•Stay inside during midday and afternoon hours when pollen counts are highest

•Take a shower, wash your hair and change clothes after working or playing outdoors.

Information comes from the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

For more information and a link to a pollen map, go to, the website of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.