Climate change can affect allergies and asthma

Allergies and climate changeMany of us enjoyed the mild temperatures this winter. It’s nice to spend more time outdoors and less time in coats. But this warming has unexpected consequences on health.

In the medical community, particularly among allergy and asthma specialists, ‘climate change’ refers to higher temperatures that are occurring both winter and summer. The average temperature on the planet is up about 0.74 degrees Fahrenheit, higher in some regions. Such change affects the ecosystem in altered growth patterns of the world’s plants and animals — greatly affecting health.

Increasing temperatures are linked to an overabundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A principal one is carbon dioxide, released as a result of animal life, by burning fossil fuels and other sources of biomass. Plants consume carbon dioxide just as people consume oxygen. The result? 

  • Increasing temperatures stimulate ragweed growth, especially in cities, which function as ‘heat islands.’ 
  • Ragweed growth and pollen production increases 63 percent when carbon dioxide levels double. 
  • Trees (e.g., olive, ash, cypress, birch) produce more pollen with higher carbon dioxide levels.
  • Mold growth increases at higher temperatures and mold spores rise about 40 percent.

More airborne allergens can have devastating effects on asthma control and quality of life. About 90 percent of asthmatics under 30 and half over 30 are allergic. Climate change makes outdoor allergen cycles longer, extending the misery for allergy and asthma suffers.

Climate change threatens asthmatics in other ways. Higher temperatures increase other greenhouse gases, such as ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide. Smog caused by minute particles from smoke stack emissions and diesel exhaust particles from trucks, cars, and lawn mowers pose added dangers for the elderly and those with fragile respiratory illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis, as well as asthmatics.

So far this year, Via Christi Clinic Allergy Department has remained unexpectedly busy with patient visits for allergies and asthma complaints — not typical for a Wichita winter. Cedar tree pollen counts were up early, with other tree pollens following. This normally happens in February. An additional month of allergen exposure for sensitized patients makes their asthma and allergic responses stronger as the outdoor mold and pollen allergy cycle evolves.

Allergy and asthma patients should take care to avoid exposure to outdoor allergens if symptomatic or ill. Medications plus avoidance are usually sufficient to provide adequate relief of symptoms and maintain good quality of life. A patient’s goal is to continue usual activities without interference from asthma or allergies. If this is not the case, a physician needs to evaluate why and set a new treatment plan for getting back on track.

About Thomas Scott, MD

Thomas Scott, MD, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and a Fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. He practices at Via Christi Clinic on Murdock in Wichita, Kan.
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