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Excessive rain brings heavy pollen to Bay Area

A woman wears a face mask in a park. With spring allergens in the area, people are having a hard time discerning whether their symptoms are allergies, the common cold and Covid. | Getty Images

Glorious spring superblooms have blossomed across California, but not everyone’s happy about it. The allergy-prone among us understand all too well that superblooms usually mean super-allergies.

Heavy winter rainstorms cause all sorts of flowers, grasses and trees to bloom, generating tons of pollen in the process. Health experts now say that the Bay Area allergy season will be particularly sneezy and severe. 

“The allergy season started a bit earlier this year, especially with grass pollen because of all the thunderstorms that we had that kicked up the pollen in San Francisco,” said Dr. Schuman Tam, an allergist based in SF and Marin County. 

When pollen counts rise, allergy-prone folks suffer. Tam says this year’s excessive blooms and weather are bad news for pollen counts, but it's hardly the first time this has happened in the flower-rich Bay area. 

Bermuda buttercups bloom along a trail at Corona Heights Park on March 7, 2023. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Pollen counts across the region are soaring. Allergy count stations in San Jose and Pleasanton noted high pollen concentrations coming from common local species like oak, juniper and poplar trees, according to the National Allergy Bureau.

In San Francisco, these same trees will drive pollen counts up too. Tam notes that allergies will hit especially hard for folks living in grassy regions like the Presidio and near Golden Gate Park, though pollen counts in SF may remain lower than in other parts of the Bay Area.

“Definitely in Marin, it’s worse than San Francisco, just because we have more grass and trees in Marin,” Tam said. “If you live in Downtown SF, your apartment might be surrounded by buildings, so there will be no pollen. If you’re close to Golden Gate Park, you’ll likely have more symptoms.”

“It’ll be worse [in San Francisco,] but not that bad compared with East Bay, South Bay or North Bay,” Tam added.  

READ MORE: Wildflower Superblooms Explode in SF Parks After a Winter of Big Rains

Translation? Down some allergy meds and grab some tissues: It’s going to be a long allergy season. 

Flowers bloom in Great Meadow Park at Fort Mason on Feb. 19, 2023. | Sophie Bearman/The Standard

But Is It Covid? 

With all the sniffling and nose-blowing going around, it might be hard to tell the difference between allergies and the common cold or Covid. 

“It will be hard to tell if you have a mild Covid infection, but if it’s severe, it’ll be very clear if it’s Covid or not,” Tam said. Though seasonal illnesses like RSV and the flu hit San Francisco hard in the winter, Covid remains the main respiratory concern for the summer. 

Tam says to pay attention to three things: length of illness, fever and testing. 

“With allergies, sometimes [patients] will have a fever, but not that high,” Tam said. “If you have a mild Covid infection, symptoms can include sneezing, pain in the throat, runny nose, a bit of cough, post-nasal drip—which are all very similar symptoms to allergies.”  

Covid still has an average run time of one or two weeks, but allergies don’t usually go away that quickly. Grass allergies—the most common pollen for this time of year—tend to last three to four months, usually from February to June. Oak and juniper tree pollen are other common strains, too, which rise in concentrations during spring and early summer

An oak tree stands along Coleman Valley Road near Occidental, west of Santa Rosa. | Getty Images

Health officials recommend taking an at-home Covid test if you have any symptoms of the infection. 

Tam said the concern about a mild Covid case is “more about causing problems for people around the patients with symptoms that mimic allergies. If it’s mild, it won't kill [a patient], but it might get other people into trouble,” such as people over 65, who are more at risk for serious or fatal illnesses.

And though allergies are often just an annoyance for many, left untreated, they can cause serious issues. 

“If allergies evolve not only into sinus infections but also to the lungs, that’s more serious,” Tam said. “If you can’t just use over-the-counter medications, have problems breathing, coughing, wheezing—that needs to be seen.”