Another side effect of Utah’s drought: A terrible allergy season

Doctors say dry air, an early growing season and haze have brought a snot-tastic summer to Utahns with pollen allergies.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nick Pinnau is pictured with his prime nemesis — the honey locust trees at his parents' Kaysville house, where he helps with outdoor projects and tending their garden. With pollen levels high mostly due to drought, Pinnau has been especially miserable.

In a normal year, Nick Pinnau’s allergies amount to a few weeks of discomfort in late spring, when tree pollen is at its worst.

But this year, Pinnau has had nonstop symptoms since March — and he says they’ve gotten way worse than his usual mild runny nose.

“This year, it’s been some days even hard just to breathe — and every other stupid little symptom everyone complains about that I never really experienced,” he said. “I have the whole slew: itchy throat, sore throat, stuffy nose.”

Many Utahns have reported noticing worse and prolonged allergy symptoms this year — and it’s all about the climate, said Dr. Cecilia Nguyen, an allergist at Alta View Clinic in Sandy.

“There are patients reporting it is the worst allergy season ever for them,” Nguyen said. “When it’s dry and when it’s windy — that is perfect conditions for high pollen count.”

And it’s been dry for a long while. Spring snow and rain usually help to control pollen counts early in the year, by tamping pollen down and preventing wind from kicking it up into the air in small particles that affect those with allergies, Nguyen said.

That didn’t happen this year; in Salt Lake City, snowfall in March was barely a third of the month’s average. April brought only a trace of snow, compared to the previous average 4 inches, according to National Weather Service data.

“Tree pollen season, which we don’t typically have problems with because of the late snow, was bad,” Nguyen said.

Spring stayed dry, allowing pollen to keep aerosolizing. May brought barely half its average rainfall; June brought just a tenth of its average one inch of rain.

With grass pollen season now underway, July also has brought only about a tenth of the usual rainfall. Although pollen counts by Intermountain Allergy & Asthma rate grass pollen as “low” in recent days, forecasts project grass pollen levels will soon be high.

“The little bits of rain we’ve been getting here haven’t made much difference in pollen counts,” Nguyen said. “We pretty much need consistent rain ... to prevent pollen.”

Grass pollen counts typically peak in midsummer, Nguyen said. And while grass pollen levels may be higher than normal during this year’s drought, that’s not the only problem.

“What’s interesting is, because it’s also hotter, at least in the month of June, we did see more mold and weed [pollen] creeping in there,” she said.

Normally, weed pollen allergies begin to appear in late summer and continue through the first frost, she said. But average daily temperatures were higher than normal for almost every day of June — and by double digits for most of the month. That allowed some weeds to begin growing early this year.

Even if mold and weed pollen levels aren’t elevated enough to trigger serious allergic reactions in a lot of people, they may make people more sensitive to grass pollen and other allergies.

And that’s not the only factor that may be making people more sensitive to allergies they might have always had, Nguyen said. “I think the poor air quality somewhat plays into that as well,” she said.

“We aren’t used to seeing this much haze in June ... and early July. Any time there’s poor air quality, you already have an inflamed baseline,” she said. “I think that does tend to worsen symptoms.”

For those with allergies, that has meant struggling to remedy symptoms that used to be resolved by an allergy shot or some other treatment, Nguyen said.

“Usually I know if I just take a Zyrtec that I’m good,” Pinnau agreed. “It’s funny because now I can tell right when it starts to wear off ... maybe an hour or two before the next one.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nick Pinnau has always suffered from allergies, but this year — with pollen levels high mostly due to drought — he's been especially miserable as he spends time tending to his parents' garden in Kaysville.

And some of Nguyen patients have had far more severe symptoms.

“Probably the most remarkable [changes] are for patients who typically have more eye symptoms: Patients can’t wear contacts or makeup. Sometimes their eyes are so swollen that you have to give them a short course of steroids,” she said.

The timing of this exceptional allergy season is particularly inconvenient as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads in Utah.

“In the back of your mind you’re always thinking: ‘Is it allergies or is it COVID?’” Pinnau said. “Even now that I’m vaccinated ... I think, ‘Did I slip up someplace?’”

Nguyen said if patients have a history of allergies and their symptoms are consistent with their usual reaction, they probably don’t need to seek out a coronavirus test.

However, it’s important to get a coronavirus test if you have been exposed to a person who tests positive — or if your normal allergies are accompanied by a fever, aches, chills, or fatigue, she said.

“I think people are pretty savvy about what distinguishes their allergy versus COVID symptoms,” Nguyen said.