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Alaska birch pollen is getting so bad, even those without allergies might suffer

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 3, 2016

Spiking levels of birch pollen are hitting Fairbanks, Anchorage and much of the rest of Alaska, with doctors seeing an influx of allergy and asthma patients.

It's gotten so bad that even those who aren't allergic may be experiencing reactions to the airborne irritant.

Fairbanks broke its record Monday with a birch pollen count of 4,290. Dr. Jeffrey Demain, medical director for the Anchorage-based Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska?, said the world-record birch pollen measurement of 4,696 was recorded in Denmark in 2014, so Fairbanks fell a little shy of the record. But he still described the levels as "massively high."

"It's so intense to look through the microscope -- all you see is birch pollen," Demain said.

Anchorage's tree pollen count on Tuesday afternoon stood at 210, but Demain said pollen counts of 1,000 were being reported in the city last week -- on a scale where a count of 175 is considered high.

The Anchorage pollen count isn't measured every day, and Demain said weather patterns can affect day-to-day pollination, which has likely risen sharply along with the record-setting pollen levels seen in Fairbanks this week.

The high pollen levels statewide have driven a 50-percent spike in patient traffic and referrals at the center, as well as its seven satellite clinics statewide.

"We are hearing from patients around the state that they are experiencing increased eye and nasal symptoms as well as asthma symptoms," Demain wrote in an email. "For the most part, we are hearing from our Anchorage-based patients."

Among the symptoms seen by staff at the center are allergic people's eyes tearing up so severely they're unable to drive, and sufferers of other ailments have also reported problems -- even those who had previously well-controlled asthma might be experiencing sneezing and coughing, Demain said.

"It's definitely a rough spring for people," he said. "You reach a point when you have this much particulate in the air, you might have people that aren't even allergic who might have a problem."

Although Anchorage typically lags a week or two behind the Interior in seeing the effects of pollen, Demain said Anchorage has been seeing an early spring, meaning a bump in pollen from "opportunistic" trees and other plants.

Christopher Salerno, an air quality specialist with the city Department of Health and Human Services, said the department often issues air quality advisories for dust or smoke but has never issued one for birch pollen.

Salerno said the department has historically tested for a variety of allergens, including pollen, which involves setting up a wind-driven trap, letting it gather pollen for 24 hours, then manually counting spores. The results have allowed it to create a calendar of when various pollens and molds typically affect Anchorage each year.

Since then, however, budget cuts have sharply trimmed DHHS air quality staff. Instead of the department testing for pollen, this year the immunology center is conducting pollen tests in collaboration with the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"We're down to one person and don't have the manpower to continue counting," Salerno said. "They've got our equipment and our (pollen trap) up and running, so they're on and we're out of the business."

According to Salerno, vulnerable people who feel the pollen's effects, including elderly residents, children and those suffering from asthma, should stay indoors if necessary and take the same precautions they would against high levels of dust or smoke in the air.

"If you have issues with asthma or (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or heart issues and you get outside in the smoke or the dust or the pollen, you want to limit your exposure to it any way you can," Salerno said.

Demain echoed that advice Tuesday, adding that over-the-counter medications like nonsedating antihistamines, intranasal steroids and eye drops could help alleviate common symptoms.

"Trees pollinate in the morning, so plan outdoor activities for afternoon and evening," Demain wrote. "Keep windows and doors shut during high-pollen cycles. Consider using a HEPA filter to remove pollen from indoors. If allergic, stay indoors during high-pollen cycles."

Online resources

The Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska is posting Anchorage pollen count data several times a week on its website.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's website, consuming raw produce containing proteins similar to certain pollens can trigger an allergic response called oral allergy syndrome. People allergic to birch pollen may experience discomfort eating apples, almonds, carrots, celery, cherries, hazelnuts, kiwis, peaches, pears and plums.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises people suffering from asthma to take three steps: identify and avoid environmental asthma triggers; create an asthma action plan with help from a doctor; and pay attention to local air quality conditions. The EPA maintains a national air quality website and an air quality index app for smartphones.

How has Alaska's outbreak of birch pollen affected you this year? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

Correction: This story originally stated Anchorage's birch pollen count was 210 on Tuesday afternoon. The birch pollen count was 160, but the overall tree pollen count -- including cottonwood, alder and birch -- was 210.

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