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Ready For Pollen Season? Here’s What You Should Know

Catkins of pollen on a pine tree
Donald Lee Pardue, via Flickr, Creative Commons

It’s April, and the scent of flowers is in the air. Unfortunately for allergy sufferers, those flowers also mean that it’s pollen season.  North Carolina pollen counts have been mostly low so far this year, but in the past couple days the count has risen dramatically.

Mary Clark, a chemistry technician with the N.C. Division of Air Quality, said on Monday that pollen counts up until then had been lower than normal. “The weather’s been so cold, I think that’s had a major affect on the release of pollen,” she said. But on Monday, after weeks of pollen counts in the low hundreds, the count shot up to 2,300.

“I think this warm weather has encouraged all trees who are kind of behind of schedule to now - with the warm weather - release their pollen all at once. I imagine in the next few days we’re going to have really, really high counts,” Clark says.

Clark analyzes pollen samples in the Division of Air Quality's Raleigh lab each weekday and counts the number of pollen grains to generate an official pollen count, a number she estimates is accurate for the piedmont region of the state. In addition to numbering the individual grains, she also records what kinds of pollen are present. So far, it has been mostly pine and oak.

For allergy sufferers, that's both good and bad. Pine pollen is the most visible - it's the stuff that drifts around in yellow clouds and settles on cars and streets - but it usually doesn't cause allergic reactions. The type that affects people with allergies more severely is oak pollen, and it's invisible to the naked eye.

In an interview with WRAL last year, spokesman for the N.C. Division of Air Quality Tom Mather said, “Oak trees are what seem to bother people the most. The oak trees happen to be flowering at the same time as the pine trees which is the type of pollen that’s most obvious to people.”

With the rising numbers of oak pollen, allergy season has already made a strong start.

Laura Finley is a registered nurse at the Sinus and Allergy Clinic at Duke Otolaryngology in Raleigh.  “We’ve definitely seen a big increase in the past couple weeks,” she says, referring to the number of patients coming in with allergy symptoms.  Finley also says that it seems like there have been more allergy patients this year than last year at the same time.

An article released by Duke Health recommends limiting exposure to pollen by keeping rooms clean of dust and closing windows. For treating allergy symptoms, over-the-counter remedies like nasal sprays, rinses, and allergy pills could provide temporary relief. If symptoms cannot be managed with over-the-counter remedies, professional medical help should be sought.

Pollen generally arrives in three waves, starting with trees in the spring. In the summer, trees scale back their pollen production, and grasses become the primary producers. In the early fall, weeds like ragweed ramp up their pollen production and dominate the pollen count.

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