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Warm wet winter may prolong allergy season

If you're sniffling and sneezing, it might not be a cold. An unusually warm, wet December is causing some people a different problem.
/ Source: TODAY

If you're sniffling and sneezing with itchy eyes lately, it might not be a cold. An unusually warm, wet November and December in parts of the U.S. are leaving some people still coping with seasonal allergies.

Boston may set a record for warmest December on record and it's the third balmiest in Washington, D.C., according to reports. For the rest of the week, including Christmas eve, weather forecasts are calling for possible record-setting warmth in the eastern U.S., with temps reaching the 70s.

Last week Twitter lit up with pictures of blooming flowers.

No weed-killing freeze

Blooming cherry trees don't cause allergies, but without a weed-killing freeze, pesky plants like ragweed keep sending pollen into the air. Mold spores — found in green grass — which typically go dormant when temperatures drop, are also causing problems.

The culprit is an especially powerful El Nino, the periodic warming in the pacific near South America happens around Christmas. The eastern half of the U.S. has been experiencing record heat due to the strongest El Nino since 1997, NBC News meteorologist Dylan Dreyer told TODAY.

In the Pittsburgh area, allergy clinics are fuller than usual for this time of year.

“I’m seeing patients with allergic rhinitis that I typically wouldn’t see,” says Dr. Stella Lee, an assistant professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Around this time of year we would normally have had snow and our first frost. But with the unseasonably warm weather we’re having a persistence of mold and a lot of patients are having problems with it."

The symptoms are wheezing, itchy eyes, nasal congestion and nasal pressure.

It's not just mold, “there are some cities in the U.S. that are still having ragweed problems,” Lee says.

The new normal for allergies

Over the past decade or so, pollen cycles have been getting longer and longer as temperatures have crept up, says Dr. Jeffrey G. Demain, a clinical professor at the University of Washington and director of the Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center of Alaska.

In fact, Demain says, researchers have found ragweed spewing pollen into the air as early as February. “There hasn’t been much research looking at how long it goes on in the fall,” he says. “That would be a really good study.”

Related: The 'pollen tsunami' is here. Try these 11 allergy survival tips

Still, it makes sense that there’d be pollen later into the fall and early winter if temperatures don’t drop down enough to kill off the weeds that produce it, Demain says.

As for mold, it’s going to be very happy with warmer temperatures, wet conditions and grass that’s turned green again. “That’s exactly what the mold is living on,” Demain says. “If there’s more grass for longer periods, the result will be more mold.”

With no end in sight to the warm temperatures, allergy sufferers will just have to hunker down and deal with their symptoms the same way they do the rest of the year.