This year’s pollen season could prove more troublesome during the pandemic as tree pollen counts are expected to surge throughout most of the country.
International data suggests pollen seasons are becoming longer and more intense due to climate change (warmer temperatures cause plants to begin producing and releasing pollen earlier, making hay fever seasons longer). Air pollution is also increasing, which further aggravates allergy symptoms from pollen and fungal spores.
The pollen problem
The highest pollen counts to date have been seen in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town from cypress, casuarina, poplar, rhus, oak and olive trees.
Plane trees, which are prolific in all cities, as well as buddleja, which tend to reach high numbers in Bloemfontein, are now also entering their flowering season. Residents in these regions should, therefore, expect a rise in allergic responses.
Confusion and concern amid COVID-19
Prof Jonny Peter, head of the UCT Lung Institute’s Allergy and Immunology Unit, says the coronavirus could make allergy sufferers hyperaware of every sneeze and sniffle as some symptoms overlap.
“Hay fever is activated by airborne allergens, such as pollen, which leads to a runny and itchy nose, scratchy throat, as well as allergic conjunctivitis in the eyes. While COVID-19 and hay fever share certain symptoms, there are some key differences. In COVID-19, fevers, body aches and headache are common, but these are rarely associated with seasonal allergies. In contrast, an itchy nose or eyes and sneezing signal allergy symptoms and are not common in Coronavirus infections.”
Prof Peter elaborates that shared symptoms may include a runny nose or nasal congestion, an intermittent cough, sore throat and fatigue.
“In asthmatics, very high pollen counts may trigger exacerbations with shortness of breath or difficulty breathing in some individuals. Fortunately, coronavirus does not commonly trigger worsening asthma. If your symptoms do worsen, it’s advisable to consult your doctor especially if you have a known sensitivity to pollen.”
Variable local pollen seasons
South Africa’s pollen seasons vary across the country’s biomes, which is why the UCT Lung Institute is trying to establish pollen monitoring stations in all the provinces.
Pollen allergy sufferers who are allergic to both trees and grasses usually have the toughest time in September and October, as it’s the time of year when grass and tree pollen overlaps. That means a double dose of misery for people who are allergic to both.
The grass pollen season can last for up to nine months of the year in certain parts of the country like the Highveld, which only comes to an end in May.
How to manage your pollen allergies
Prof Peter says as pollen levels rise, it is important to continue managing allergies during the pandemic with antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays and inhalers.
He adds that wearing masks may offer some protection against seasonal allergies since they can prevent larger particles from being inhaled.
“However, smaller pollen particles are still likely to get through the covering. Therefore masks should not be your only form of protection. It’s also important to wash your mask after each use because it could be carrying pollen.”
Another sensible option is to regularly check the pollen counts for your area on www.pollencount.co.za and to limit time outdoors when counts are high. Sufferers can also use this resource for real-time information on air pollution across South Africa.
“Using a portable air filter in one or more rooms in your home will also help to filter pollen and dust. Use a high-efficiency particulate filter (HEPA) for best results,” suggests Prof Peter.
Keep windows and doors closed in the morning to midday when pollen counts rise. The lowest pollen counts are usually in the late afternoon to early evening. When outdoors, avoid activities such as mowing the lawn or raking leaves that will stir up pollen.
Equally important is to remove clothes you’ve worn outside and to wash your skin and hair to remove pollen. Rather use a tumble dryer to dry clothes and bedding as pollen can stick to sheets and towels when hung outside.