Pollen detected in air is earliest ever recorded

The pollen counter on the roof of Allegheny General Hospital detected tree pollen in the air Thursday, the first time it's been recorded there in February.

That's the harbinger of an early season for spring allergy sufferers and the result of a warmer-than-normal winter, said AGH allergist David Skoner.

"Moderate counts of tree [pollen] already!!! Wow!," Dr. Skoner, director of AGH's Division of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology, wrote in an email after the pollen count was measured by division research associate Asha Patel.

Tree pollen counts usually start in early April, peak in late April and early May and disappear by Memorial Day.

"I don't remember one happening as early as this," Dr. Skoner said. "The last time we documented an early increase was in 2007. It was March 27. ... This will probably be the earliest we've seen, if the weather continues to be the way it is now."

He had predicted there would be an early count of tree pollen -- the first pollen nature releases in the spring -- recorded on Allegheny General's Burkard Volumetric Spore Trap on the North Shore -- because of the warm weather. The average temperature since December has averaged a little more than 4 degrees above normal, according to meteorologist Lou Giordano of the National Weather Service.

"We look back in the last four or five years, and it's been pretty consistent when the season starts and really picks up," Dr. Skoner said. But I think this year is going to be different -- because of the warm temperatures we've had and adequate precipitation as well. These plants are growing and growing early because there was very little winter time."

Local allergy sufferers haven't needed an official pollen counter to know that an early spring has begun in the region. They've already been coming into the AGH clinic with itchy eyes and runny noses that are the hallmark of spring tree allergies, Dr. Skoner said in an interview conducted before Thursday's reading.

"Just because we don't measure it on the roof of AGH, there may be some pollen in the air, where it's warmer, south of the city," he said.

Readers responding to queries on the Post-Gazette's Facebook page also are reporting early allergy symptoms.

"I've been fighting my allergies already, two weeks ago my itchy-watery eyes started," Chris Jobes wrote.

Emily Leone thought she had a cold, but it got worse on warmer days. "I've had an earlier-than-usual sinus infection and sore throat that I can't kick," she wrote.

Mr. Giordano, the meteorologist, predicts that Pittsburgh's weather through May should continue to be warmer than normal.

And that trend may continue. Richard Otte, an allergist/immunologist/asthma specialist with Premier Medical Associates in Monroeville, said "the trend is every spring is going to be earlier than the last spring, and it's going to last later." The reason, he said: "Climate change and carbon dioxide levels, and a number of studies have looked at that," he said.

Allergy symptoms include stuffy or runny nose, sneezing and post-nasal drip, itchy and runny eyes, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness, said Andrej Petrov, medical director of allergy and clinical immunology in a division of pulmonary allergy and critical care medicine at UPMC. "They can develop nasal symptoms, eye symptoms or lung symptoms."

The lung symptoms are mostly in patients with asthma, Dr. Skoner said.

Over-the-counter antihistamines and prescription nasal sprays with steroids work better when started earlier rather than later, he said. "I might well tell them to start it now. Traditionally I tell them to start in early to mid-March."

Sufferers also can receive the Allegheny General pollen count daily for free and adjust their times outside accordingly. Pollen counts are highest between 5 and 10 a.m. and subside through the rest of the day, Dr. Skoner said.

If you're interested in more information about receiving the pollen count, contact Asha Patel at 412-359-3217 or apatel@wpahs.org.