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Sniffing and sneezing season is here as pollen peaks in Tampa Bay

Once again, March marks the peak of Florida’s tree pollen season. But there’s a tool that can help. They’re called “masks.”
A cyclist rides beneath a heavy canopy of trees along a street in Tampa's Hyde Park area on Friday. Pollen levels are peaking in the Tampa Bay area.
A cyclist rides beneath a heavy canopy of trees along a street in Tampa's Hyde Park area on Friday. Pollen levels are peaking in the Tampa Bay area. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Mar. 5
Updated Mar. 5

In the race to start sneezing, coughing and itching across the nation, Florida usually comes in first.

And so it has in 2021. The peak of allergy season arrives right on time as winter recedes and spring rises in the Sunshine State.

Forecasts from pollen.com show Tampa could experience extremely high levels of pollen in the coming week. The projection calls for a high as 11 for Monday, just one point below the scale’s maximum rating of 12.

By comparison, the Monday forecast for Boston calls for a level of just 2.6.

Dr. Farnaz Tabatabaian.
Dr. Farnaz Tabatabaian. [ University of South Florida ]

Florida often beats the rest of the country to the peak of its allergy season because the state warms up the fastest after winter, according to Dr. Farnaz Tabatabaian, an allergist-immunologist at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine in Tampa. Of course, that’s largely because it never gets that cold to being with.

“We get pollenation pretty much all year long,” Tabatabaian said. “We just get the most that cause symptoms this time of year.”

The five-day pollen forecast for Tampa and Boston from pollen.com.
The five-day pollen forecast for Tampa and Boston from pollen.com. [ Pollen.com ]

So, while plants and trees up north continue to thaw after a long winter, in Florida plants and trees usually start to bloom between February and April and release pollen into our air. Thus those susceptible to allergies could soon find themselves with itchy, sneezy noses and have watery eyes.

There’s little that can be done to protect the allergic from their allergies, Tabatabaian said, as the pollen leaves the trees, hits the air, then “spreads everywhere.”

But while the coronavirus pandemic has led to a year like no other, Tabatabaian said, so too does this allergy season arrive with a twist: The same face masks used to protect people from spreading and catching the coronavirus can also keep those pesky pollen particles from reaching noses and mouths, causing mild allergy symptoms.

“Some patients have likely inadvertently had some more relief than years past,” Tabatabaian said.

Pollen can still infiltrate through the eyes, however, so face masks cannot completely guard against allergy symptoms.

A leaf, pollen and pollen stains are seen on the ground Friday in Tampa.
A leaf, pollen and pollen stains are seen on the ground Friday in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Those with allergies will likely have to wait until April for a reprieve. That’s when Florida’s current supply of airborne pollen shifts from oak, pine and cypress trees to grass, which releases significantly fewer microspores.

When COVID-19 first start spreading a year ago, the usual sneezing and sniffling of allergy season could have led some to believe they were suffering from the coronavirus, not allergies. So it’s important to understand the difference in symptoms between being infected and being allergic.

Severe headaches and a fever are not a symptom of allergies, Tabatabaian said, but are serious signs of the coronavirus. Instead, pollen can cause symptoms such as itchy eyes, a runny nose and sneezing. In more serious cases, pollen can harm those with asthma and can weaken the body’s defenses against respiratory viruses.

Trees are reflected in the hood of a pollen covered vehicle Friday in Tampa.
Trees are reflected in the hood of a pollen covered vehicle Friday in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

For those worried about this year’s allergy season, Tabatabaian says they should start taking over-the-counter medication to fight the ill effects as soon as possible. In allergy seasons to come, she recommends that Tampa Bay residents start taking medication as early as New Year’s Day to start girding for allergy season.

“The allergies come earlier here but so does the warmth,” she said. “I’d definitely take a little congestion now than to be freezing cold.”