Skip to main content

Sneezing season: Why allergies are so bad in San Francisco right now

Is it Covid or just allergies? Many San Franciscans are surely asking themselves this question at the moment, as changing weather patterns are leading to an increase in environmental irritants in the atmosphere. 

Tree pollen, a fine powdery material that causes allergies and which can be carried for miles by the wind, is currently at “Very High” levels locally—and is poised to reach “Extreme” levels later this week—according to the weather forecasting service AccuWeather

Common pollen-producing trees in San Francisco include species of willow, oak and maple trees. And as the weather gets warm, dry and windy, pollen counts climb and carry further in the air.

Trees aren’t the only culprits, as there is also a high level of grass pollen in the air locally; these increased levels are also expected to last throughout the week. 

In “Extreme” pollen conditions, like we are currently experiencing, AccuWeather advises sensitive individuals to take allergy medication to ease symptoms and avoid outdoor activity.

Climate Change is Contributing Factor

While pollen counts can vary widely depending on local plant life and weather conditions, recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports shows that climate change has lengthened the allergy season and increased pollen production, leading to more severe allergies and more affected patients in the Bay Area.

Stanford University researchers found that between 2002 and 2019, the average number of weeks per year with measurable pollen increased in the Bay Area. The study discovered that peak pollen concentrations are associated with rising temperatures in the spring and summer. 

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), the rise in the prevalence of allergic diseases has continued in the industrialized world for more than 50 years. 

People enjoy Allyne park on Gough St. in San Francisco, Calif on October 1, 2021. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Covid or Hay Fever?

Locally, seasonal allergy issues are emerging amid a new Covid wave that has led to an increasing number of recorded infections.

For patients, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two conditions, particularly as the dominant Omicron coronavirus variant has the tendency to present with upper respiratory tract symptoms like nasal congestion and a runny nose, which are similar to seasonal allergy issues.

Seasonal allergy symptoms can also include sinus pain, sneezing, itching and rashes as well as more severe issues like a swollen throat, trouble breathing and hives.

Fever, gastrointestinal issues and muscle aches—symptoms commonly reported by those suffering from Covid—are not associated with allergies. Neither is anosmia, or a severe loss of smell. While allergies can impact a person’s sense of smell because of congestion, they don't tend to completely eliminate them, like in some Covid presentations.

Patient context also plays a role. The emergence of symptoms after an unmasked indoor gathering is indicative of a Covid infection, while being sniffly after being outdoors on a hot day is indicative of seasonal allergies, particularly if you have a history of sensitivity to pollen. Of course, the most definite way to determine the cause of symptoms is to get tested. 

Seasonal allergies generally last for two to three weeks at a time and correspond with a certain irritant being in high supply in the environment. Contact prevention is the best way to avoid allergy symptoms and includes tactics like wearing sunglasses and face masks, or staying indoors with the windows closed during pollen surges. Medications to combat symptoms, include antihistamines, decongestants and nasal corticosteroids, which are offered over the counter at most pharmacies.

Kevin Truong can be reached at