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World Allergy Week 2023: The Link Between Climate Change & Worsening Allergies

The week of 18 to 24 June 2023 marks World Allergy Week, an annual global event that raises awareness around allergies and their serious health implications. The theme for 2023 is managing allergic diseases amidst climate change, and focuses on educating people about the connection between worsening allergies and climate change.

According to the United Nations, the average temperature of Earth’s surface is now about 1.1°C warmer than at any time in the last 100,000 years – in fact, the last decade (2011-2020) was the warmest on record.

“All this warming is affecting our pollen seasons and causing allergy seasons to start earlier and last longer,” says Professor Mike Levin, CEO of the Allergy Foundation of South Africa (AFSA), the organisation driving the awareness campaign in SA.

A study of 60 pollen-collecting stations in the US and Canada found that the pollen season is now 20 days longer on average. The SA pollen monitoring network is busy collating similar data for the southern hemisphere and preliminary analyses confirm increasing pollen seasons in the Cape.

“The warming of our planet is creating an environment that can support high pollen-producing plants in places where they may not have existed previously,” says Professor Johnny Peter, head of the Allergy and Immunology Unit at Groote Schuur and Head of Allergology and Clinical Immunology at UCT. “For example, a highly allergenic plant called Ragweed which is native to North America has now been found in South Africa (Ragweed detected in South Africa ⋆ The Real Pollen Count). Climate change is also driving extreme weather events, and in 2018 we experienced ten-year highs in grass and tree pollen levels due to the drought over parts of South Africa.”

Increased greenhouse emissions increase the amount of carbon dioxide – which in turn stimulates plants to generate, and release, more pollen. The pollen seasons are being so intensely impacted that scientists predict that average pollen counts in 2040 will be more than double what they were in 2000. And it is not just pollen. Burning fossil fuels also releases air pollutants and air particles that can worsen allergy symptoms.

Why we need to pay attention to worsening allergies
“When the coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and congested nose, head, and chest symptoms that come with seasonal allergies are left untreated, they can turn into bigger problems such as ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. Untreated allergies can also make pre-existing conditions such as eczema and asthma worse,” cautions Prof Peter.

This is particularly important with regard to asthma, which can be life-threatening, and South Africa has one of the highest asthma death rates in the world. “It is known that asthma and allergies frequently co-exist, with up to 80% of asthmatics having seasonal allergies. An untreated allergic reaction can lead to an asthma attack.”

2023 EPA report found that pollen levels are projected to increase children’s asthma-related emergency department visits from 17% to 30% each year.

What allergy and asthma sufferers should do in the face of climate change
According to Professor Aneesa Vanker, a paediatric pulmonologist at Red Cross Children’s Hospital and a member of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies Environmental Group, people who suffer concurrently from allergies and asthma must recognize and treat even mild symptoms of an allergic reaction to avoid a potential asthma attack. “Air pollution which contributes to climate change is known to exacerbate asthma. The severity of an asthma attack can escalate rapidly, so it’s important to treat allergy symptoms immediately once you recognize them to stop them from progressing.”

“Carefully managing allergies and asthma in consultation with your primary care doctor is key. Treat symptoms of allergies early using a prescribed, or one of the many over-the-counter, antihistamine and nasal anti-inflammatories available in pharmacies.”

It is also advisable for allergy sufferers to check the daily pollen count and try avoiding the outdoors when they’re especially high. You can check the daily pollen count here: Home The Real Pollen Count. This website offers a “traffic light” rating system on the daily pollen count, as well as other allergen sources, and gives recommended actions based on the measured levels.

“For people who suffer from asthma, it is important to treat asthma with regular prevention therapy even when symptoms are not present.  Controller medication is most effective when delivered directly to the lungs using an aerosol holding chamber, such as the AfriSpacer™, a device that slows the speed of the spray from an asthma pump and helps asthma sufferers direct more medication into their lungs. Using the AfriSpacer™ allows 1.7 times as much medicine to reach the lungs – making it more effective than a home nebuliser, or dry powder inhaler.” The AfriSpacer™ is particularly recommended by the Allergy Foundation of South Africa for all children with asthma, and even adults who will benefit from better delivery of their asthma medication into their lungs” says Prof Vanker.

A global webinar hosted by top allergy specialists discussing climate change and worsening allergies will take place on Tuesday 20 June at 2 pm (SAST). Topics will include the major current climate changes, how climate change enhances allergen exposure, and how to mitigate the hazards of climate change. For more information on the webinar and to take part, visit World Allergy Week 2023 | World Allergy Organization

More information on asthma and allergies can be accessed on the AFSA website at Asthma – AFSA (allergyfoundation.co.za) or contact the Allergy Foundation of South Africa at 081 405 8442; email info@allergyfoundation.co.za. Follow @SAallergy on Instagram and Twitter @SAallergy and Facebook @SAallergy


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