An exceptionally early allergy season on British Columbia's South Coast is causing many people to mistake their symptoms for a cold or flu virus, says a Vancouver allergist.

"The season has started earlier this year," said Dr. Amin Kanani. "If you look at the trend over many years, yes, we are seeing higher pollen counts occurring, and it is coming out earlier in the year."

Kanani says a mild winter led to allergy season kicking off in January this year. He says tree pollen counts usually start to increase in February during a mild winter, but otherwise can start as late as March. 

For those hoping the early start means the worst is over, Kanani warns that peak pollen is yet to come. 

"The pollen counts are definitely increasing, and they will get worse through the months of March and April," he said. 

Kanani said there's not enough data yet to say whether pollen counts are higher this year, but he says long-term trends lead him to suspect they will have increased by 10 to 30 per cent. 

Cold or allergies?

Kanani says many of his patients have been coming into his clinic incorrectly believing they have a cold or the flu. 

He says there are a few hints that can help discern whether that runny nose is pollen or virus-based.

Allergy symptoms to watch for:

  • Longer-lasting symptoms — allergies can go on for weeks to months.
  • Clear nose discharge, instead of the yellow-greenish stuff often caused by colds and the flu.
  • Itchiness around your eyes and nose. 
  • No fever.

Treating your symptoms

Although allergy symptoms can cause misery, Kanani says the outcome generally only goes as far as a loss in quality of life. However, he warns that people with asthma should watch for flare-ups. 

Kanani says the first step to treating symptoms is to identify which pollens are causing them. 

Then, those with mild symptoms should be able to rely on over-the-counter medication and saline nose rinses. 

More moderate symptoms can be treated with a prescription nose spray, he says, and those with serious symptoms may want to consider immunotherapy to desensitize themselves to the pollen.  

With files from Kamil Karamali