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POWER SPORT THE-BEAUTY

Save the trees, prevent the sneeze

photo of a man sitting on the ground with his back against a tree holding a tissue to his face and blowing his nose; ground is covered in leaves indicating fall season

When I worked at Greenpeace for five years before I attended medical school, a popular slogan was, “Think globally, act locally.” As I write this blog about climate change and hay fever, I wonder if wiping off my computer that I’ve just sneezed all over due to my seasonal allergies counts as abiding by this aphorism? (Can you clean a computer screen with a tissue?)

Come to think of it, my allergies do seem to be worse in recent years. So do those of my patients. It seems as if I’m prescribing nasal steroids and antihistamines, recommending over-the-counter eye drops, and discussing ways to avoid allergens much more frequently than in the past. Are people more stressed out, working harder, sleeping less, and thus more susceptible to allergies? Or, are the allergies themselves actually worse? Could the worsening of climate change explain why the rates of allergies and asthma have been climbing steadily over the last several decades?

There’s more pollen and a longer pollen season

Seasonal allergies tend to be caused disproportionately by trees in the spring, grasses in the summer, and ragweed in the fall. The lengthening interval of “frost-free days” (the time from the last frost in the spring to the first frost in the fall) allows more time for people to become sensitized to the pollen — the first stage in developing allergies — as well as to then become allergic to it. No wonder so many more of my patients have been complaining of itchy eyes, runny nose, and wheezing.

In many places in the United States, due to climate change, spring is now starting earlier and fall is ending later, which, yearly, allows more time for plants and trees to grow, flower, and produce pollen. This leads to a longer allergy season. According to a study at Rutgers University, from the 1990s until 2010, pollen season started in the contiguous United States on average three days earlier, and there was a 40% increase in the annual total of daily airborne pollen. More recent research in North America shows rising concentrations of sneeze-inducing pollens and lengthening pollen seasons from 1990 to 2018, largely driven by climate change.

Climate change is increasing the potency of pollen

In addition to longer allergy seasons, allergy sufferers have other things to fret about with climate change. When exposed to increased levels of carbon dioxide, plants grow to a larger size and produce more pollen. Some studies have shown that ragweed pollen, a main culprit of allergies for many people, becomes up to 1.7 times more potent under conditions of higher carbon dioxide. With warming climates, the geographic distribution of pollen-producing plants is expanding as well; for example, due to warmer temperatures, ragweed species can now inhabit climates that were formerly inhospitable.

Other unfortunate consequences of climate change, which we are already witnessing, include coastal flooding as the arctic ice sheets melt, causing the sea levels to rise; and more extreme weather, such as storms and droughts. With the increased coastal flooding, mold outbreaks are more common, which can trigger or worsen allergic reactions and asthma. More extreme weather events, such as thunderstorms, are associated with an increase in emergency department visits for asthma attacks. (It is unclear why this is the case, but one theory suggests that the winds associated with thunderstorms kick up a tremendous amount of pollen.) Allergies and asthma are closely associated, with many people, this author included, having “allergic asthma” that is likely to worsen as climate change progresses.

So what can an allergy sufferer do?

Even as the allergic environment changes in conjunction with our climate, there are steps you can take to manage the impact of seasonal allergies and reduce sneezing and itchy eyes.

  • Work with your doctor to treat your allergies with medications such as antihistamines, nasal steroids, eye drops, and asthma medications if needed. If you take other medications that may interact with over-the-counter allergy medications such as Benadryl or Sudafed, let your doctor know.
  • Discuss with your doctor whether you would benefit from allergy testing, a referral to an allergist, or prevention methods like allergy injections or sublingual immunotherapy, which, by exposing your body in a controlled manner, slowly conditions your immune system not to respond to environmental allergens.
  • Track the local pollen count and avoid extended outdoor activities during peak pollen season, on peak pollen days. However, most doctors would agree that it isn’t healthy to cut back on exercise, hobbies, or time in nature, so this is a less than satisfying solution at best. You could plan for an indoor exercise program on high-pollen days.
  • Wash clothing and bathe or shower after being outdoors to remove pollen.
  • Close windows during peak allergy season or on windy days.
  • Wear a mask when outdoors during high pollen days, and keep car windows rolled up when driving.
  • If your house has been flooded, be on the lookout for mold. There are services that you can hire that will inspect your home for mold, and remove the mold if it is thought to be harmful.
  • Have as small a carbon footprint as possible and plant trees. Even though they are responsible for some of the pollen that many of us choke and gag on each spring, summer, and fall, trees contribute to their environment by taking in carbon dioxide and producing the oxygen we breathe, thereby improving air quality. We have to protect and plant trees, even as allergy sufferers, as climate change is arguably the biggest threat that we, as a species, now face.

About the Author

photo of Peter Grinspoon, MD

Peter Grinspoon, MD, Contributor

Dr. Peter Grinspoon is a primary care physician, educator, and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital; an instructor at Harvard Medical School; and a certified health and wellness coach. He is the author of the forthcoming book Seeing … See Full Bio View all posts by Peter Grinspoon, MD

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POWER SPORT THE-BEAUTY

Babesiosis: A tick-borne illness on the rise

A red and black adult deer tick climbing a blade of green grass with blurred grass in the background.

You may be familiar with Lyme disease, a bacterial infection from the bite of an infected black-legged tick. While Lyme disease is the most commonly reported tick-borne illness in the United States, another is on the rise: babesiosis. A March 2023 CDC report shows that babesiosis now has a foothold in 10 states in the Northeast and Midwest.

What is babesiosis?

Babesiosis is an illness caused by a parasite (typically Babesia microti) that infects red blood cells. It is spread by infected black-legged ticks (deer ticks). In most cases, the tick must be attached to a person for at least 36 hours to transmit the parasite.

What are the signs and symptoms of babesiosis?

“You may or may not see the tick bite mark on your skin, so your symptoms may be the earliest sign of an infection,” says Dr. Nancy A. Shadick, a rheumatologist and director of the Lyme Disease Prevention Program at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Some people with babesiosis experience no symptoms, but the most common symptoms are a combination of

  • severe flulike symptoms such as a high fever (up to 104° F), chills, and sweats, particularly night sweats
  • general discomfort or feeling unwell
  • intense headache
  • muscle and joint pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • fatigue.

These symptoms can appear within one to nine weeks, or even several months after a person has been infected.

Less often, babesiosis causes hemolytic anemia. In this form of anemia, red blood cells are destroyed faster than the body can replace them. Signs and symptoms include

  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • dark urine
  • yellowing skin and whites of the eyes.

Babesiosis can be a severe, life-threatening disease, particularly for adults over age 65 and people with weakened immune systems, such as people without a spleen and those receiving biological therapy or chemotherapy.

Why are cases of babesiosis rising?

Until recently, babesiosis was endemic (consistently present) in seven states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

However, the CDC report added three more Northeastern states to the list — Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont — where case rates between 2011 and 2019 matched or even surpassed the other seven states. Vermont cases rose from two to 34, Maine cases from nine to 138, and New Hampshire cases from 13 to 78. The trend is worrisome.

There are several reasons for the rise in babesiosis. “One is warming temperatures driven by climate change, which cause ticks to be more active earlier in the spring and later in the fall,” says Dr. Shadick. Other contributors are an increase in the number of whitetail deer and a rise in housing construction in wooded areas.

How is this tick-borne illness diagnosed and treated?

Babesiosis is diagnosed by a blood test.

It may be treated with specific antibiotics (different than those used for Lyme disease), or with an antibiotic and antimalarial medication. While treatment usually takes seven to 10 days, a longer course may be recommended for people who are immunocompromised.

Can you get Lyme disease and babesiosis?

Yes, though you may also get either one by itself. Some black-legged ticks that carry the Lyme bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) also may carry the Babesia parasite, according to Dr. Shadick. “Lyme disease also shares similar symptoms with babesiosis, such as fever, headache, and fatigue,” she says.

How can you prevent tick-borne illnesses?

Tick exposure can occur year-round, but ticks are most active during warmer months. Most cases of babesiosis occur from late spring through early autumn.

Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas. Almost any outdoor activity can expose you or your pets to infected ticks, such as camping, walking your dog, and gardening.

To avoid babesiosis and other tick-borne diseases, the CDC offers these tips:

  • Use insect repellents recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. Treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin. Permethrin can treat boots, clothing, and camping gear and remain protective through several washings.
  • Wear light-colored pants and long-sleeved shirts and a hat during outdoor activities.
  • Try to avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of trails.
  • Check clothing, pets, backpacks, and gear for ticks after spending time outdoors.
  • When you come indoors, remove shoes and put clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks.
  • To remove a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick, as this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. Clean the bite area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Shower within two hours after coming indoors to help remove any unattached ticks. Use the opportunity for a full-body tick check.

For in-depth information about preventing, treating, and living with a tick-borne illness like Lyme disease or babesiosis, see the Lyme Wellness Initiative at Harvard Health Publishing.

About the Author

photo of Matthew Solan

Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Matthew Solan is the executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. He previously served as executive editor for UCLA Health’s Healthy Years and as a contributor to Duke Medicine’s Health News and Weill Cornell Medical College’s … See Full Bio View all posts by Matthew Solan

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Howard LeWine, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD