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Ragweed, hay fever: Why fall allergies may become worse than ever

The surprising reason your symptoms could be getting worse in future years.
/ Source: TODAY

You may think your allergies are bad now, but climate scientists say it could get much worse in the future.

European researchers are predicting warming temperatures could greatly extend the ragweed season and make the weed’s pollen into an even more potent allergen, a recent study reported.

After calculating the impact climate change would have on ragweed, the researchers determined that in Europe, the number of people suffering from hay fever or seasonal allergies due to the weed’s pollen might double over the next 35 years. As for those who are already allergic to ragweed, symptoms are predicted to worsen.

The researchers aren’t sure what that might mean for people living in the U.S.

“The paper shows that ragweed is sensitive to climate change and that climate change could lead to important health consequences in Europe,” said the study’s lead author, Iain Lake, a researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences.

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“One would therefore assume that there would be impacts in the U.S. where ragweed is widespread," he continued. "However, without a specific U.S. study it is impossible to be specific.”

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been looking at the impact of climate change — specifically warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide — on ragweed growing here. “You get a much bigger plant and about 10 times more ragweed pollen,” Ziska said.

Even worse, lab studies have shown that under those conditions, the weed’s pollen appears to become an even more potent allergen.

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Carbon dioxide, Ziska said, “is plant food. So, with higher levels of carbon dioxide you get more strawberries, more flowers — and also more poison ivy, more ragweed and more kudzu.”

With no solution currently in sight to the warming temperatures, how does one survive a blizzard of ragweed pollen that can travel as far as 400 miles?

While you can’t do much about weeds that might be growing that far away from you, there are ways to minimize the impact on your life, said Dr. Merritt Fajt, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

First and foremost, if you think you have an allergy to ragweed, you should probably be tested, Fajt said. Often, people think they have a cold rather than allergies, but there are some clues that would suggest your symptoms might be due to allergies rather than a virus:

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  • Nobody you know has a cold: “Maybe you’re the only one in your home feeling terrible,” Fajt said.

  • Symptoms have been going on for a long time: “A lot of people, when they end up in my office, thought they had a really bad cold and when it didn’t let up over a month, they realized it had to be something more,” Fajt said.

If you know you have allergies to ragweed, there are some strategies to limit the misery.

  • Spend more time inside: “On days when the pollen is really high, try to stay indoors as much as possible,” Fajt said.

  • Leave the windows in your home closed: “When fall hits, a lot of people like to leave their windows open because they like the crisp, cool air,” Fajt said. “That’s definitely a no-no because it lets all the pollen into the home.”

  • The same goes for car windows: “If you drive with your car windows down, you expose yourself to pollen,” Fajt said. “And it can become trapped in your car.”

  • When you come in from working outside, clean up: “If you’ve been outside doing typical fall activities, such as yardwork, take a shower when you come inside and change your clothes so you’re not tracking ragweed around your home,” Fajt said.

One crucial takeaway: If you know you’re allergic, start taking your medication before the ragweed blizzard hits.

“We recommend that people start using their allergy medications as soon as late summer,” Fajt advised. If you wait until you’re already feeling bad, it can take days before your medications can back the symptoms off.