In the six years Christina Leeson has lived in Yellowknife, she has never dealt with seasonal allergies before. This year? They’re unbearable.
Speaking to Cabin Radio last week, Leeson said: “I’m very stuffed up. Headaches. And my eyes, specifically my eyes… I want to just like rip them out of my face.”
She concluded: “Allergies suck.”
Leeson’s allergies became so bad, she had to take time off work. She has been using antibiotic eye drops and antihistamines to cope.
Leeson isn’t the only one suffering this season. When she made a post on her Facebook page asking friends about their allergies this year, 36 people from Yellowknife to Calgary told her they had never experienced such severe symptoms before.
Kieron Testart, the former Kam Lake MLA, said he’s “been popping antihistamines like Tic Tacs.”
He usually gets allergies around this time of year, but said they’ve never been this serious.
“It’s been quite the season,” he said. “Some nights it’s hard to get to sleep, stinging tears, can’t breathe.
“You feel congested all the time. The worst of it is when you feel like your head weighs 10 pounds and you can’t stop crying.”
Symptoms similar to Covid-19
Testart said it doesn’t help that some allergy symptoms are similar to those for Covid-19.
“When Covid’s happening, any time you get a runny nose or any kind of symptoms at all, your mind immediately jumps to a very worried place,” he said.
Neither Leeson nor Testart are exactly sure what’s causing their allergy symptoms, but Testart suspects it has to do with pollen or dust in the air.
Dr Tim Vander Leek, an allergist based in Edmonton and vice president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, said birch pollen can be a significant cause of allergy symptoms. As the snow melts and the ground is uncovered, people may also experience mould allergies, he said.
Naturopathic doctor and homeopathic practitioner Dr Shahin Moslehi, with the Juniper Health Clinic in Yellowknife, said greater stress levels can also trigger a heightened immune response to allergies – something people might have experienced in the past few months.
Dr Tim Vander Leek is an allergist based in Edmonton and vice president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Photo: CSACI
Vander Leek said, in his experience, it’s not obvious that allergy seasons are getting worse over time. Different patients from Yellowknife every year say they’re “experiencing a particularly nasty season,” he said
“I think that the trend is that if people are not using the medications that they’ve been prescribed consistently or properly, they’re more likely going to have a very bothersome season.”
Climate change and allergy season
Vander Leek did, however, note that climate change may be prolonging pollen seasons.
As permafrost melts, he said, there could be more mould spores in the air.
According to the federal government, research suggests climate change will increase the amount of airborne pollen and spores that cause allergic reactions. That’s because higher carbon dioxide levels, warmer weather, and longer allergy seasons can increase plant growth and cause plants to produce more pollen. More frequent thunderstorms can also send more pollen into the air.
Daniel Coates is the director of marketing and business development for Aerobiology Research Laboratories, which analyzes pollen and spore samples across Canada to create allergy forecasts.
He said allergy season usually begins around mid-March in most of Canada and is most intense from mid-May to late June. This year, however, because of cooler weather, many trees didn’t start producing pollen until mid-April. That means this allergy season has been shorter and more intense, Coates said – but, overall, trees aren’t producing more pollen.
Coates said in Yellowknife, where winters are longer, the allergy season is likely always shorter and more intense than the rest of Canada. He explained when there’s a warm period, there will be more pollen in the air.
Pollen from birch trees can cause allergy symptoms for some people. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
Aerobiology Research Laboratories has more than 30 stations across Canada, but none in the Northwest Territories. Coates said the closest one to Yellowknife would be in Edmonton. There, he said, pollen from pine and alder trees is currently causing allergy symptoms for some people, and the allergy season for grasses and spores is starting.
Coates and Vander Leek both said some allergy symptoms are similar to those for Covid-19: coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and headaches. The main difference is that allergy sufferers won’t experience fever or the general feeling of being unwell associated with Covid-19, they said.
People with allergies may also experience itching, sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and nasal pain.
Dr Kami Kandola, the Northwest Territories chief medical health officer, said she expects more people will get tested for Covid-19 during allergy season. The territory has expanded symptom criteria for testing over the spring and summer.
Kandola recommends that people who may have allergies monitor their symptoms, wear a non-medical mask in public, and maintain other pandemic precautions like social distancing and hand washing. If people are feeling especially unwell they should stay home and get assessed for testing, she said. Anyone who experiences fever, muscle aches, or chills should call their local health centre.
As of Friday last week, 2,579 tests for Covid-19 had been completed in the NWT and an additional 44 tests were awaiting results.
Avoidance is the best strategy
So what’s the best way to cope if you’re struggling this allergy season?
Coates and Vander Leek said avoidance is the best strategy. That means keeping windows closed, not hanging laundry to dry outdoors, and staying indoors when it’s hot and windy if you can.
If you do go outside, Vander Leek said, it could be helpful to bathe yourself and your pets shortly afterward so you don’t bring pollen indoors.
If that doesn’t help, Vander Leek recommends newer, non-drowsy antihistamines that can be bought over the counter, or seeing a physician if symptoms are more serious.
There is no resident allergist in the Northwest Territories. A representative from the territorial health authority said many allergy questions and concerns can be addressed by primary care providers.
According to the health authority, a pediatric allergist does visit the territory. Adults may be referred to a southern specialist if their concerns can’t be addressed by local providers.
The authority plans to create an allergy clinical pathway to guide healthcare providers on managing allergy issues and minimizing travel outside the NWT to see allergists.