Unusually warm temperatures are bringing allergy season early in Europe

A person suffering from allergies blows their nose.
A person suffering from allergies blows their nose. Copyright Canva
By Lauren Chadwick
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There has been an overall increase in allergies over the last 20 years, with fewer months that are “allergen-free”.

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The runny nose and itchy eyes of allergy season have started earlier than usual in some European countries.

Most of France is at an elevated risk of pollen allergies this month, with more people suffering from hay fever this year than in previous years.

“There has always been pollen at this time of year, but what’s new this year is that there is apparently a lot more of it,” said Dr Madeleine Epstein, an allergy doctor in Paris.

“It’s impacting more people who are quite bothered [by their allergies],” she added.

The higher risk of allergies is mainly due to warmer temperatures, with last month being the warmest January **on record**in Europe.

The increase in the presence of pollen in the air in France was helped by recent meteorological factors.

“The winds blow from southwest to northeast at this moment in most of the country, and this basically makes the pollen travel,” said climate physics researcher Davide Faranda from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) earlier this week.

“They can move from the southern region where the flowers are already open and therefore the pollens are already in the air to the northern region, where… all the pollen are not yet in the air,” he added.

Tree pollen starts earlier

The French National Network for Aerobiological Surveillance (RNSA) warned last week that there was a particular increase in pollen for hazel and alder trees.

This in addition to Cupressaceae (cypress, juniper, and cedar) pollen will “increase the risk of allergy to high levels,” they added, with rain expected to bring the pollen levels down.

Karl-Christian Bergmann, chair of the German Pollen Information Service Foundation, told Euronews that in the last twenty years, the tree pollen has started earlier, especially hazel and birch pollen.

Birch in particular goes up and down each year, he said, but overall, the tendency is that it’s increasing.

It’s not that there is “more pollen” in the air, but rather that “you have an earlier start of the pollen,” Bergmann said, adding that air pollution in cities can alter the proteins in the allergens.

A Polish study published last year in the journal PLOS One found that birch trees in highly polluted cities, for instance, contained higher levels of a main allergen. The study authors recommended that allergenic trees not be planted in polluted cities.

This means that the same amount of pollen can induce more allergies or more symptoms in people in polluted areas.

This year in Germany alder tree pollen started in early February, which is earlier than usual and due to high temperatures, according to Matthias Werchan, who is also from the German Pollen Information Service Foundation.

Climate change impacts allergy season

A French government report published in 2014 warned that climate change could extend the pollen season, change the geographic distribution of pollen, and increase concentrations of it in the air. It highlighted that atmospheric pollution could also interact with pollen and allergies.

The earlier start of tree pollen and extended allergy season in the autumn means fewer times of the year are allergen-free.

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“If you are allergic to tree and grass and let's say ambrosia [ragweed], then you have very little time, maybe only 2, 3 or 4 weeks without pollen in the air,” Bergmann said.

“This is a change in comparison to, let's say, 20 years ago where we had at least three or four months without pollen in the air”.

Faranda added that the allergy season can stop and resume as temperatures could still fall during the winter.

“The fact that we are still in winter doesn't exclude that at a certain point in March, or even again in February, we will have colder weather and this could stop the allergy season, stop the flowering of many species, and this will then create a break in the allergy season that can then restart,” he said.

“This is expected to continue in time with, increasing CO2 emissions and climate change,” he said.

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