Sniffly spring: Anchorage is in the middle of its notorious tree pollen season

Anchorage is right in the middle of its worst yearly stretch of pollen counts, afflicting allergy sufferers with sneezes and wheezes around the city.

The culprit is tree pollen during this roughly monthlong period that makes things particularly miserable, said Melinda Rathkopf, director of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska. Trees like birch and alder are responsible for Anchorage’s most significant pollen season, which is occurring right now.

According to the center’s tree pollen count data, levels were around 600 last week before falling to 110 by Friday. Anything above 89 is considered high. But Rathkopf said that doesn’t mean the levels couldn’t spike back up again; last year, Anchorage’s tree pollen count exceeded 1,200 at one point.

“I’m not convinced we’ve hit our peak,” Rathkopf said, though she predicted people could soon feel relief in the coming days or weeks.

The tree pollen measurement records the previous 24 hours of pollen in Anchorage’s air and is one of multiple allergens — along with mold, grass and weeds — whose levels are reported on the allergy center’s website. High pollen counts are fairly typical this time of year, she said.

Tree allergies appear to be the most common — and most difficult — among patients, according to Jeffrey Demain, who founded the the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska.

Patients come in complaining of eye itching and burning, sneezing, congestion and some coughing, even among people who don’t have asthma, Demain said.

“The spring is a very troublesome time for our allergy patients,” Demain said.

Experiencing the onset of allergies as an upper respiratory viral pandemic still continues may leave some people feeling a bit panicky about a runny nose or cough. But Rathkopf said if you’ve been vaccinated, your chance of contracting COVID-19 is low, plus there are some key differences between the virus and allergies.

First, allergies are annual and expected. Most people know when they occur and are aware of the symptoms. Plus, allergies itch and they don’t cause a fever. They can cause coughing and headaches, but don’t cause a sudden loss of smell or taste the way COVID-19 does.

Rathkopf recommended three over-the-counter treatments for those experiencing seasonal allergies: antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays — which Rathkopf said is the best treatment — and allergy eye drops to treat symptoms during these nasty weeks.

She also recommended wearing sunglasses outside and showering off after coming back indoors.

“There’s quite a bit you can do,” Rathkopf said.

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Tree pollens usually peak in the morning, Demain said, so he recommends planning outdoor activities later in the day.

While recent rainy and damp days may tamp down pollen levels briefly, Demain expects levels to spike back up as the sun comes back early next week. He said high tree pollen levels will continue through the middle of June — and that’s about the time when grass pollens begin to erupt.