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Allergy season started early and will only get worse after weekend respite

Pollen levels, chiefly from oak trees, have been high since Jan. 8. That’s much earlier than last year. Blame a warm December.
Care Plus Pharmacy in Palm Harbor is already seeing high sales of these allergy medications as pollen levels spike earlier than usual.
Care Plus Pharmacy in Palm Harbor is already seeing high sales of these allergy medications as pollen levels spike earlier than usual. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 20

People with allergies already know this, but pollen levels are spiking earlier than usual.

January has delivered an influx of patients to Farnaz Tabatabaian, an allergist-immunologist at the USF Morsani College of Medicine. Usually, pollen levels this high don’t arrive until the end of January.

Blame a warmer-than-usual end to 2021, Tabatabaian says. Warmer weather, including record-breaking heat in the middle of December, accelerates the release of pollen from trees. A cool December in 2020 delayed the peak of last year’s allergy season until March.

An early allergy season usually brings an occasional respite, though, because cold fronts sweep through and temporarily clear the air. Expect one this weekend.

Temperatures are expected to drop into the 40s Saturday and Sunday in Tampa Bay, with some areas in Pasco and Hernando counties dipping into the upper 30s. Pollen at “medium” levels of 5.8 then 7.2 is forecast, according to Pollen.com. The scale runs from 0 to 12.

This break from the sneezing and sniffles will be sandwiched between days with moderately high levels of pollen. The forecast for Friday is 9.1 and Monday will return to 8.1, both levels high enough to cause significant symptoms for those who struggle with allergies.

“The cold fronts in January really slow it down,” Tabatabaian said. “But it also creates more wind that comes and spreads this stuff around.”

Dr. Farnaz Tabatabaian is an allergist-immunologist at the USF Morsani College of Medicine in Tampa.
Dr. Farnaz Tabatabaian is an allergist-immunologist at the USF Morsani College of Medicine in Tampa. [ University of South Florida ]

The warmer weather creates a pollen forecast much higher than areas to the north. Five-day forecasts for Boston, New York City and Chicago are all at .1 each day, essentially no pollen at all, and even Atlanta and Charlotte are forecast to have levels around 2.4.

The worst days so far in Tampa Bay came early — Jan. 8 and Jan. 11. Pollen levels reached a “high” 10 both days.

The 30-day historical data for pollen levels in Tampa.
The 30-day historical data for pollen levels in Tampa. [ Pollen.com ]

“How early it comes here really depends on how warm December is,” Tabatabaian said. “And we just experienced a warm one.”

With the early allergy season overlapping with the rise of the omicron variant, she encouraged people to learn the difference between the two.

A severe headache or fever are not symptoms of allergies, Tabatabaian says, and could signal something more serious, such as COVID -19. Pollen’s most common symptoms are itchy eyes, a runny nose and sneezing.

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The main source of pollen across Tampa Bay is oak trees, followed by cypress, cedar, Australian pine, ash and elm.

Pollen arrived quickly but it hasn’t yet spread as far as it will, Tabatabaian said, so she advised allergy sufferers to start taking over-the-counter medication now.

“We still haven’t hit our peak, which usually comes in February or March,” she said. “It will only get worse from here.”

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