Edmonton

Is snow mould making you sneeze? Gesundheit!

Along with the daffodils and tulips, there is something more sinister sprouting up underfoot during the beleaguered Alberta spring: snow mould.

The winter fungus thrives in cold, wet conditions and the spores sprout in spring

Allergy sufferers can blame a cold, wet Alberta spring for triggering their symptoms. (Shutterstock)

Along with the daffodils and tulips, there is something more sinister sprouting up underfoot during the beleaguered Alberta spring: snow mould.

Edmontonians already suffering from sniffling and sneezing, red eyes and rashes — before even a single blade of grass has become visible — may have a particular fungus to blame.

Snow mould can trigger seasonal allergy symptoms early in the season. 

"The typical symptoms are generally the sniffling, sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, watery eyes," said Lilly Byrtus, a regional co-ordinator for the Allergy/Asthma Information Association, a national charity founded in 1964.

"Some people get itchy ears. Some people get itchy mouth.

"It's similar symptoms to what we call hay fever when the trees start pollinating." 

'A prairie phenomenon'

Snow mould accumulates throughout the winter months, feeding off moisture in the ground. As the snow melts, it becomes exposed.

It accumulates on the grass, usually in small circles. Sometimes it appears as a pink fuzz or a wispy grey sludge.

"It's an outdoor mould that accumulates in the layers of snow throughout the winter and then in the spring, the snow melts and as it gets down to grass level, we can see this sort of grey mat," Byrtus said Thursday in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"It's a grey film that almost looks like spider webs."
Snow mould accumulates throughout the winter months, accumulating on the grass like spider webs. (Shutterstock)

Snow mould occurs when there is heavy snow cover that is not completely frozen for an extended period.

The fungus thrives when the soil surface temperature approaches 0 C and the snow starts to melt.

Snow mould often kills the turf and sends spores into the air each spring — much to the chagrin of often-unsuspecting allergy sufferers.

Other parts of the country aren't affected the same way.

"It's something that happens here in Edmonton and certainly in more northern parts of the country," said Byrtus. 

"It's a prairie phenomenon and it's because the snow that we get during the winter tends to stay all winter long.

"We don't have melts where it all disappears. We keep what we get."

'There isn't a magic cure'

If non-prescription antihistamines don't work, a sufferer should see a doctor, who will be able to recommend other treatments such as prescription nasal medications.

Byrtus recommends people try to limit exposure by keeping windows closed and avoiding yard work where there might be mould.

"Of course with any type of allergy, the best treatment is avoidance of symptoms in the first place," said Byrtus. "But there isn't a magic cure."

A good rain will wash away the worst of the fungus, but snow mould spores can survive, dormant for months during the summer, ready return when winter hits.

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