NYC allergy sufferers, brace for pollen impact

NYC allergy sufferers, brace for pollen impact

By Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky

Published Apr 14, 2023 at 9:01 a.m.

A person sits on a bench in front of a blossoming tree in Central Park on March 30, 2023.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

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New York City’s beautifully blooming trees could send some allergy and asthma sufferers to the emergency room in the coming weeks.

That’s the takeaway from a bulletin shared by the health department earlier this month. The memo advises doctors that pollen from maple, birch, oak and other trees can not only trigger itchy eyes and runny noses, but also asthma attacks severe enough to prompt a hospital visit.

How bad could it get? People who spend a lot of time around New York City’s trees say this year’s allergy season is off to a precocious start. Melissa Finley, curator of “woody plants” at the New York Botanical Garden, estimates that spring germination started “three or four weeks ahead of schedule” — mainly for non-native plants like magnolia trees, which take their cues to bloom from warm temperatures.

At a glance

  • ER visits for asthma spike in the spring, driven by loads of airborne tree pollen.
  • Climate change is making the allergy season longer and more intense.
  • If you have asthma and seasonal allergies, start taking your allergy medicine ASAP, before the “peak pollen impact” weeks in April and May.
  • If you have school-age kids, make sure you send in a doctor-signed asthma medication administration form, which allows school nurses to give meds as needed.
  • Talk to your doctor about setting up an asthma management plan with info on when to take medicine (and when to go to the ER).
  • Keep the windows shut and avoid outdoor activities on high-pollen days.

Native plants, meanwhile, tend to respond to hours of daylight rather than warmth, so they’re less affected by unseasonably warm temperatures.

Data from the health department shows that in past years, the spring surge of airborne pollen has coincided with a spike in ER visits. On average, New Yorkers make 260 asthma-related ER trips each May, when pollen is at its peak, compared to 218 in April and just over 180 per month in midsummer.

Our current warm, breezy and unusually dry spring weather isn’t helping, either: A light rainstorm would help cut down on airborne pollen, giving allergy sufferers at least a temporary reprieve. (That said, storms come with their own allergens, namely mold and sometimes even clouds of extra-triggering allergen particles.)

Hospital visits for asthma actually plummeted during the 2020 allergy season with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, likely due to fear of contracting the virus at emergency rooms. But these incidents rebounded in 2021 and 2022. It’s not yet clear when or how intense this year’s pollen and hospitalization surge will be, but city health officials predict that “pollen impacts in 2023 are likely to reflect the increasing trend in asthma ED [emergency department]visits since 2020.”

Lewis Ziska, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is intimately familiar with “all the nasty, bad, sneezy, drippy things that happen when there’s too much pollen in the air” — including asthma attacks that sent him to the emergency room.

“I have my pocket protector — my albuterol inhaler — with me at all times,” he said.

Ziska explained that climate change is lengthening the spring allergy season and beefing up pollen production due to mild winters, early springs and delayed first frosts. Changes in weather patterns will also make surges in airborne pollen more sudden and intense.

“You go from sniffing and sneezing to, ‘I can’t breathe and I need to go to the ER,’” he said.

So, what’s an urban allergy sufferer to do? Anna Stern, a lifelong New Yorker with severe tree pollen allergies, runs her air purifiers constantly, avoids tree-lined parks and shuns eye makeup during allergy season.

“I gave up on wearing mascara because what’s the point?” she said. “You mean when my eyes are running down my face? Nah.”

Stern and other advocates are urging the city to be more choosy in its species selection when planting new trees — favoring fruiting specimens over those that shed large quantities of lightweight, allergenic pollen that’s carried far by the wind.

A man takes a selfie with cherry blossoms at Central Park, April 10, 2023.
While looking at this photo might tickle your nose, cherry blossoms aren’t considered very allergenic.Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

But the city’s parks department has to balance pollen production with other concerns when choosing which trees to plant. Pests and diseases have shortened the list of trees that can realistically thrive in our local ecosystem. And seed-bearing trees can be messy and stinky, so the city has traditionally favored lower-maintenance fruitless species, said Finley from the New York Botanical Garden.

“We want to reduce pollen levels,” she said. “The problem is that people are less concerned with pollen and more concerned with fruit dropping everywhere and smearing across their driveway.”

In the meantime, city health officials are urging allergy sufferers to start their go-to allergy medications before the pollen peak. For school-age kids, that means sending in a doctor-signed asthma medication administration form, which allows school nurses to administer meds during the school day. Doctors should also prescribe inhalers to asthmatic patients and prepare asthma management plans, which include guidance on when to take medicine and when to go to the ER.

Thankfully, the spring season isn’t all sniffles and inhaler puffs. There are also riotous blooms of cherry blossoms to enjoy. According to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s “Cherrywatch” tracker, many of the cherry blossom trees in the Brooklyn institution’s Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden are at or near peak loveliness. Other Japanese cherry blossom tree species, which line the botanic garden’s aptly named Cherry Esplanade, haven’t yet shown their true colors.

Finley notes that cherry trees aren’t much of an allergy concern — they’re pollinated by insects rather than by wind, so their heavy, sticky pollen grains typically don’t travel far enough to reach our suffering nostrils.

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