published Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Warm winter ignites early pollen surge in Chattanooga area

A tulip poplar tree blooms in Chickamauga in this file photo.
A tulip poplar tree blooms in Chickamauga in this file photo.
Photo by John Rawlston.
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CURRENT POLLEN PRODUCERS

Hickory

Oak

Poplar

Birch

Cedar

Alder

Hackberry

Pine

Source: Chattanooga/Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau

Poll
Do you suffer from allergies?

Nose running like a faucet? Head feel as if it's full of concrete?

Blame the trees.

Allergy season has come early this year with Tuesday pollen levels classified as "extremely heavy," the highest rating issued by the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau.

And that pollen has trickled down to the medical community.

"We've been extremely busy," said Dr. Todd Levin of the Chattanooga Allergy Clinic.

Pollination is dependent on higher temperatures at night, and an especially wet and warm January contributed to trees releasing pollen as early as two weeks ago, a full month before average, Levin said.

The "extremely heavy" rating describes areas with at least 120 grains of pollen per cubic meter -- on Tuesday Chattanooga had more than five times that amount.

But Amber Boles of the air pollution bureau said the levels were even higher on the same date last year -- 840 compared with this year's 650. If this year is anything like the last, we can expect pollen levels to fluctuate throughout March, she said.

Last year, pollen counts didn't decrease substantially until June, according to bureau data.

"In July, the whole month had low pollen," which is the typical pattern each year, Boles said.

Unfortunately, Levin warned, up-and-down pollen levels can make allergies worse. Once pollen is in the body, the immune system "primes" itself, building up antibodies to attack the foreign substance. When pollen levels drop, antibodies build up; if pollen levels rise again, the antibodies all attack at once, causing the symptoms associated with allergies -- runny nose, stuffy head and aches.

Despite its early start, Levin said he doesn't think the pollen season will end early. Even if a late frost kills some tree buds, they're likely to come back, he said.

The current pollen levels are due largely to eight types of trees, but other allergens include weed and grass pollen, all of which Levin characterizes as dry, small and wind-borne. This is in contrast with flowers, which are pollinated by bees and have larger, stickier and less offensive pollen.

As for the yellow dust on your car? It's probably pine, the doctor explains, and while it might be a headache, it's less likely to give you the sniffles.

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