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Here's Why Your Allergies Might Be Worse This Year In Northeast Ohio

Dolores Watson sweeps seeds that fall from her cherry and elm trees in Cleveland, OH. Watson says she loves trees but not they way they stoke her allergies.[Lisa Ryan / ideastream][
Dolores Watson sweeps seeds that fall from her cherry and elm trees in Cleveland, OH. Watson says she loves trees but not they way they stoke her allergies.[Lisa Ryan / ideastream][

The tree allergy season is here in Northeast Ohio and some experts say it's getting worse each year.

There are several theories about why this is happening, including botanical sexism, which involves choosing male trees over females because they don't leave messy seeds on the ground.

They do, however, emit more pollen.

Dolores Watson was recently cleaning up some of those seeds from her cherry and elm trees in Cleveland.

Watson is a self-proclaimed tree hugger. She advocates for the trees and organizes tree plantings in Cleveland neighborhoods.

The only problem? She went to an allergist, who determined she’s allergic to—you guessed it-- trees.

“And I thought, well, that’s awful,” she said. “I saw that when I started getting sick was just when the Buckeyes started blooming. And then I thought, that’s just so ironic. I’m a tree hugger, I live in Ohio, of course I’m allergic to Buckeyes, that’s just the way it goes.”

Spring is prime tree allergy season in Northeast Ohio, according to clinical allergist Dr. Shan Shan Wu.

“Anytime from March to May is tree season in Northeast Ohio,” she said. “We can find a little bit of the grass pollen appearing as well, and as we head to June and July, that’s grass season, tree season is gone.”

A device outside of Dr. Wu’s practicing clinic in Mayfield Heights counts the pollen in the air.

This machine, called a Rotorod, counts pollen outside of Allergy/Immunology Associates, Inc. in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

“We have an older kind of machine, it’s called a Rotorod, where it spins a certain number of times every 15 minutes, and we use the slides and take a look under the microscope and count each pollen out,” Wu said.

A person from a fellowship program gathers what the machine collects every day and manually counts pollen spores under a microscope, she said.

Right now, tree pollen is high, as it typically is this time of year. And there are some theories that it might be getting worse.

The First Theory: Climate Change

A Rutgers University study found that climate change has increased pollen in the U.S. by about 40 percent from 1990 to 2010.

 “The pollination period gets extended when there’s more “no frost” dates. So the warmer it gets, and the shorter the winter gets, the extended season of pollen is,” said arborist Diana Sette, who currently works as a horticulturist at University Hospitals.

 “In many ways, ironically, the ultimate solution to dealing with the pollen issue is to plant more trees so we have less carbon in the air and more oxygen, which helps increase the air quality,” she said.

Diana Sette poses for a picture in University Hospitals' rooftop garden. [Courtesy: Diana Sette]

The Second Theory: Botanical Sexism

This theory concludes individuals and city planners purposely planted male trees, which produce fewer seeds but more pollen.

Sette has heard of this theory, and said it’s commonly used with trees that have a lot of seeds, which can litter sidewalks, streets, and clog sewers.

“One big example is with the gingko tree, because the flowers of the gingko are very strong and the fruits can even cause a little rash, for some people it’s an irritant,” Sette said. “In Chinese culture, in Eastern medicine, it’s used medicinally, but here it’s viewed more as a deterrent, so oftentimes you’ll see more of the male planted for that particular species.”

The nursery industry is driven by trends and aesthetics, according to Lizzie Sords, the manager of urban forestry at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

“We're very drawn to big, showy flowers and predictable shapes, or at least that has been kind of the dominant landscaping trend,” Sords said.

To accomplish that, Sords said nurseries used propagation tools to make trees more desirable for consumers, which often means fewer seeds but more pollen.  

However, Sords said the health benefit of trees outweighs any allergens.

“There is more benefit to having a robust urban tree canopy than trying to go back and mitigate allergens,” she said.

Those health benefits include improved air quality, cleaner water through trees’ natural filters, and decreased temperatures through the shade that trees provide.

The Third Theory: COVID-19 Face Masks

Now that more vaccinated people are taking off their masks, they might be more susceptible to allergies.

While masks helps, Dr. Wu said you can still become exposed to pollen while wearing them.

“Wearing masks outside can prevent some of the pollens from entering the nasal passageway, but if someone’s allergic to a specific type of pollen and they come into contact or become exposed to it, that type of pollen could also get in touch with the mucosal lining of the eyes and hands,” she said.

But there are some things you can do to help improve your allergy symptoms, Sette said.

“There are things you can do. Keep your windows up while you’re driving during the pollination season. Washing your clothes if you’ve been outside, just things like that to reduce your exposure to pollen,” she said. “Removing plants is not the answer.”

Watson, meanwhile, doesn’t mind sweeping messy sidewalks or taking antihistamine pills, because she loves trees more than she hates her allergies.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158