DOVER — As the culprit of runny noses and itchy eyes across the state, pollen season is in full effect for Delawareans.
The fine, yellow powder responsible for the fertilization of plants can be found during the spring months and is the primary reason for seasonal allergies that affect thousands of Delawareans. Pollen plays a crucial role in North American ecosystems as the powder is the male DNA responsible for plant fertilization.
Pollen, which is produced by a flower’s anther, can be moved by bees, birds, butterflies, humans or wind. These factors are responsible for the displacement of pollen into our atmosphere, leading many Delawareans to see the powder blowing through the wind and onto vehicles, coating them with a thin layer of the substance.
There are different types of pollen in our atmosphere including tree pollen, grass pollen and ragweed pollen. The levels of each strain are tracked by various weather organizations, as they are the typical causes of seasonal allergies.
Though the types of pollen can vary, all can cause seasonal allergies as a result of the spring bloom of plants and trees. Megan Pleasanton, a Delaware State University Cooperative Extension educator for the Master Gardeners program, said you can visibly see some of the differences in pollen types, though those with allergies can feel the effects of all three.
“It can range from the dry, fine particles that you typically see to heavier, stickier pollen based on the source. Certain flowers will have a heavier pollen than what you see on your cars. All flowers have sticky pollen, but it can range on consistency,” Ms. Pleasanton said.
Ms. Pleasanton’s work as an Extension educator with DSU’s Master Gardeners program helps promote research-based, sustainable gardening practices to the public and provides a 16-week training program for members. These sustainable gardening practices include reducing the amount of fertilizer, planting plants in the right place and composting.
Though Delawareans can take the proper steps to promoting sustainable gardening practices, climate change is having an adverse effect on the environment, including on pollen.
According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, climate change is worsening pollen season in North America because of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. The PNAS states that human-caused climate change has worsened pollen seasons and will continue to have significant respiratory health impacts in the coming decades.
In order to grow and generate energy, plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to break down and absorb nutrients in a process called photosynthesis. When plants use these natural resources during photosynthesis, they produce pollen. With fossil fuels causing an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increased pollen counts result.
One of the reasons that communities across the state have been struggling with pollen season is Delaware’s high amount of tree canopy. Ms. Pleasanton said the amount of tree canopy in the state can be attributed to pollen amounts since they are one of the top producers of the substance. She said that, in Delaware, there are many areas with large woods or forests that are also home to dense greenery which also produce pollen.
Throughout the state of Delaware, pollen counts typically remain high during the spring bloom for this reason, resulting in allergy flare-ups for many residents.
Dr. Greg Marcotte, of Ear, Nose, Throat & Allergy of Delaware, said Delawareans typically struggle with tree pollen from early March through May and grass pollen from May through July. He said the overlap of the presence of tree pollen and grass pollen causes May to be the most difficult month for allergies as residents are getting hit with twice as much pollen.
Dr. Marcotte said, as the weather changes during the spring, the typical symptoms from seasonal allergies are exacerbated by changes in barometric pressure and temperature. He said the variability in weather results in sinus headaches for many residents, whose symptoms then may be worsened by potential allergic reactions.
Typical symptoms for those experiencing an allergic reaction triggered by pollen include runny or stuffy nose; sneezing; itchy nose, eyes, ears or mouth; and red and watery eyes. These symptoms are often referred to as hay fever, which is an allergic reaction caused by allergens such as pollen. According to a 2018 study from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 19.2 million adults and 5.2 million children were diagnosed with hay fever.
These allergies can be worsened for residents who battle asthma or eczema, according to Dr. Marcotte, who said pollen can trigger reactions caused by both conditions.
“Patients with asthma or eczema will have flares in their symptoms in the springtime, especially when the pollen is high. With hay fever, it’s mostly triggered by just pollen,” Dr. Marcotte said.
“Weather changes and pollen certainly have an effect on patients with those conditions, although the biggest triggers for asthma and eczema patients include infections and exercise. Though for people with a sensitivity to pollen, it’s more common for children to experience these allergies than adults.”
Dr. Marcotte said that Delawareans with allergies to pollen shouldn’t seclude themselves inside to avoid symptoms, but instead, he provided recommendations on how to avoid severe reactions to the substance. Since spring is a time when many residents engage in yardwork, protective face coverings such as the N-95 masks used during the pandemic come in handy to prevent allergic reactions, he said.
“This is a time of the year when people want to enjoy the outdoors. So, for people that do, you should come back inside, change your clothes and take a shower because the pollen will stick to your clothes and to your hair,” Dr. Marcotte said.
“Masks are great for decreasing pollen inhalation, but if avoidance measures don’t work, there are good medications that can help prevent or reduce symptoms caused from pollen.”
Dr. Marcotte recommended the over-the-counter antihistamine Claritin, as well as the nasal spray Flonase, for Delawareans hoping to ease the symptoms caused from pollen inhalation.
For Delawareans looking to experience the outdoors and avoid seasonal allergies, Pollen.com provides an allergy forecast for municipalities which include pollen levels, helping residents best prepare for the conditions.