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Ask Oz and Roizen: The Climate’s Effect on Allergies, and Diagnosing Narcolepsy

Ask Oz and Roizen: The Climate’s Effect on Allergies, and Diagnosing Narcolepsy

Our experts share important tips for managing health conditions.

Q: My allergies are coming sooner, lasting longer and getting worse every year. Is it just me? —Amanda Y., Tampa, FL

A: If you think your seasonal allergies are worse than in years past, you’re not alone. As a result of global warming, there’s more pollen and it’s more potent! The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says, “between 1995 and 2011, warmer temperatures in the US have caused the pollen season to be 11 to 27 days longer.”

Other experts have also found that climate change is promoting more allergies. There was a 2012 paper presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology that estimated pollen counts will triple from 2000 to 2040. And the Union of Concerned Scientists states, “Carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that is the primary cause of our warming planet, increases the growth rate of many plants and increases the amount and potency of pollen.” One study from Maryland showed that weeds that grew 5 to 6 feet tall in the rural countryside were 10 to 20 feet tall in downtown Baltimore! A-a-a-choo!

Most recently, a study by researchers at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, published in the journal PLOS ONE, showed how “climate change–driven ecological changes are directly linked to allergic disease burden in the United States.” They used satellite data collected by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer to make that finding.

No, Amanda—you and 25 million other wheezy, sneezy Americans are not imagining that your allergies are worsening. Our advice?

  • Get to your pharmacy for OTC sinus-relief meds—no epinephrine if you have high blood pressure.
  • See an allergist to find out exactly what you’re reacting to.
  • Remember to always check your local weather app for a pollen count so you’re prepared.
  • Whenever you come back home after being outside, take a shower, wash the pollen out of your hair and change clothes.
  • Last but not least, lobby your representatives for climate change action now!

Q: I was driving to work the other day and I had to pull over because I couldn’t stay awake. I took a quick nap and I was fine. That’s not the first time it’s happened. Could I have narcolepsy? —Brendon M., Austin, TX

A: You were lucky you found a place to pull over! Drowsy driving causes up to 72,000 crashes a year. Around 200,000 Americans have narcolepsy, a disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness, and no one knows how many of those folks are involved in car accidents. Did you know late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel has narcolepsy and it’s said that Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill both contended with the disorder?

If you do have narcolepsy, there are medications to treat it—although only about 25 percent of folks with the disorder are receiving care. And a recent breakthrough in understanding the disease may revolutionize treatment options.

Danish researchers published a study in Nature Communications that found people with narcolepsy have a certain kind of activated immune system T-cell that interferes with the body’s ability to regulate sleep by attacking a needed chemical (hypocretin) produced by neurons. In short, wakefulness is short-circuited. This discovery could lead to newer and better treatments.

For a diagnosis, we recommend you contact a sleep specialist who focuses on the disorder. Narcolepsy is a very complex condition (there are two types), and a Narcolepsy Network survey found that on average people say it took six years to get a proper diagnosis after the onset of symptoms and 38 percent were initially misdiagnosed, often with depression.

If it turns out you don’t have narcolepsy, talk with your doc about your sleep habits, and get tested for sleep apnea and insomnia. If you’re nodding off while driving, whatever the cause, you want to make sure it never happens again.

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