How Climate Change Impacts Allergies and Asthma

Climate change creates changes above and beyond the expected seasonal variations in temperatures and weather phenomena. It increases air pollution, degrades the environment, and produces many negative health effects globally. For example, suppose you are an allergy sufferer or asthmatic.

Key takeaways:
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    Climate change causes extreme weather events, temperature fluctuations, air, and water quality changes, and worsening air pollution.
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    Climate change negatively affects allergy sufferers and asthmatics.
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    Monitor air quality alerts and allergy advisories before considering outdoor activities if you suffer from asthma or respiratory allergies.

In that case, you know all too well that due to climate change, you may experience worsening symptoms such as runny eyes, itchy or congested nose, cough, and even trouble breathing. Steps we can take as a society to minimize these negative impacts on our environment may help lessen the burden of illness on the millions of individuals who suffer from allergies and asthma annually.

Allergies and asthma in the U.S.

According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), we are experiencing worsening and longer allergy seasons due to climate change. They report that nasal allergies occur in 40% of kids and 30% of all adults in the U.S. Asthma leads to almost 2 million people heading to the emergency room annually, with healthcare costs exceeding $50 billion a year. Finally, in the U.S., 6.3 million children (9%) and 17.7 million adults (7%) have asthma, with proportions continuing to rise.

Every year, millions of people worldwide suffer from allergies and asthma. As a result of climate change, temperatures and weather extremes are increasing, making allergies and asthma worse. Additionally, there is a higher likelihood that individuals who do not yet have asthma or allergies will develop them.

What is climate change, and should we care?

What is climate change, and should you care? Climate change refers to long-reaching effects on the typical weather patterns that define global, regional, and individual regions on Earth. Climate change occurs due to numerous human activities — gradually over millennia. However, this change has been increasing rapidly due to industrialization. Simply put, yes, everyone should care. But specifically, if you or someone you care about suffers from allergies or asthma, you should care because it is already impacting your health.

The burning of fossil fuels revolutionized modern civilization. However, not without consequences. The industrial development of society, using fossil fuels and other means, leads to the excess production of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide (NO), and water vapor, all of which occur naturally and as byproducts of human activity, and fluorinated gases, which are human-made. These gases become trapped in the Earth's atmosphere, trapping heat with them, causing average temperatures to rise. Further change continues secondary to normal external changes, such as fluctuations in the sun’s energy production, alterations in the Earth’s orbit, and even volcanic activity (above and below the surface).

As CO2 levels increase, warmer weather and milder overall winters can lead to the early blooming of various plants and flowers. This triggers pollen levels to rise earlier, and similar changes allow pollen levels to last well past the previously expected allergy seasons. Furthermore, not only do pollen levels rise, but the ability of the pollen to cause allergic reactions worsens.

Increased average moisture and wetter weather also provide a great environment for mold spores to thrive. This increases the prevalence of mold and the likelihood of allergic disease and asthma flares from the increased mold.

Negative effects of climate change

Some still claim climate change, even global warming, to be a conspiracy or a false phenomenon. However, scientific studies abound that clearly show the climate is changing and a connection between climate change and increased respiratory and allergic diseases globally.

Climate change is causing a gradual increase in yearly temperature, a slow incremental change by Earth’s standards. Worldwide this change amounts to an annual average rise of 1.8℉ or 1℃, and this rate continues to increase. A degree or two temperature variation can be hard to wrap one’s head around; you can see why some people fail to see the impending consequences of climate change. But, for those who suffer from allergies and asthma, the effects of just a degree shift or more, increasing air pollution and allergens, are all too real.

Increased weather extremes

Climate change brings about an increase in weather extremes. Where you live determines to what degree you see these changes.

  • Floods
  • Droughts
  • Extreme storms (worsening earthquakes and tornados)
  • Abnormal temperature variations
  • The blurring of the seasons

Sometimes, seasonal changes can include unseasonably warm weather during traditionally winter months and other times, seasonal changes can include freezing temperatures in traditionally warmer months. Seasonal changes can also be seen in more tropical climates where the timing of wet and dry seasons can change substantially. Storms and extreme weather situations increase the risk of infectious diseases, mold, exposure to toxic chemicals, pollens, and more.

Climate change’s negative health impacts

Climate change leads to a plethora of health impacts worldwide, including but not limited to:

Extreme heat — heat-associated death/illness; heart failure.

Severe weather — leads to deaths; mental health effects; injuries.

Air pollution — worsens asthma and heart disease.

Changes in vectors — expanding territories for mosquitoes, ticks, and other critters that transmit infectious diseases to animals and people are more commonplace in areas never seen before.

Increasing allergens — worsens asthma and respiratory-induced disease.

Water quality — increased infectious diseases such as leptospirosis and cholera can trigger the growth of dangerous algal blooms.

Decrease in availability and quality of the food and water supply — increase in diarrhea-inducing diseases and malnutrition.

Degradation of the environment — migration, war, and mental health effects.

Air pollution and ozone levels

Sources of air pollution include natural entities like wildfires, volcanoes, and compounds produced by plants. Human-produced sources include fossil fuels used to produce heat and electricity, livestock production, deforestation, transportation (exhaust and fumes), cooking, and industrial chemicals.

Air pollution levels and ozone vary from day to day. Factors that contribute to pollution and ozone levels in the air include exhaust from vehicles, power plants, burn piles (people burning things in their yards), and wildfires, to name a few. Additionally, compounded by climate change, everyday triggers for rising air pollution further increase a person’s exposure to allergens, decreasing air quality and ability to breathe easily. People who never suffered from allergies or asthma before may develop them over time due to the ever-changing climate and increasing exposure to allergens.

The effects of climate change are vast but include creating a steadily warmer environment over time. Increased temperatures, rainfall, and flooding contribute to an increase in allergies. These rising temperatures and elevated carbon dioxide levels trigger plants, trees, and grasses to generate more pollen.

Ways to protect oneself from air pollution

You can take a few steps to lessen your chances of ill effects from air pollution. Protect yourself by:

Monitoring air quality alerts.

Staying indoors when air quality is poor.

Avoiding outdoor exercise when levels rise.

Avoid burning materials near or around your home — wood, incense, cigarettes, e-cigarettes, trash.

Purchasing an air purifier(s) with a HEPA filter for your home.

Reducing your mold exposure (prevent mold accumulation in your home; if identified, have it removed quickly).

Talk to your healthcare provider — discuss any medications needed for rescue breathing or at the height of allergy season, in addition to routine medicines you may take.

Keep doors and windows closed — use air conditioning rather than opening windows.

Ensuring your home is insulated and properly sealed.

How can you minimize climate change’s ill effects?

You can take steps in your daily life to minimize climate change’s negative effects:

Learn to reduce your carbon footprint and ensure you understand climate change and its ill effects.

Plant trees and other vegetation to improve oxygen levels, provide shade, and aid in improving air quality.

Walk, ride a bike, or carpool when feasible.

Don’t idle your car; turn it off.

Refuel vehicles in the evening hours on hot days to lessen the gas vapor remaining in the air.

Practice the three Rs — “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”.

Support renewable energy sources such as solar panels; turn off lights when not in use.

Choose energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs when feasible and available.

Allergies, Asthma, & Climate Change

Climate change is ongoing. It will remain a reality and continue to worsen unless society dramatically changes how we function in our day-to-day lives. Suppose you are already an allergy sufferer and have asthma or other medical conditions that affect your ability to breathe. In that case, you know the effects of normal allergens and air pollutants such as ragweed, pollen, ozone, and others on your ability to participate in outdoor activities and breathe easily. Be smart, stay safe, and check the air quality alerts and resources to help you know when to avoid activities and high allergy areas. Follow-up with healthcare providers if symptoms worsen or seem uncontrolled.

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