Spring has sprung, so it’s time for physicians to help patients feel better, maintain quality of life, and keep working.
Increasingly warmer temperatures driven by climate change have been lengthening pollen season and are a significant contributor to increasing pollen concentrations. Plants have begun producing pollen earlier in the year and at a higher rate. Research has found that pollen seasons now start 20 days earlier, last 10 days longer, and produce 21% more pollen than in 1990. This early onset spring and increase in pollen levels can significantly impact respiratory health, including allergies and asthma, and negatively affect emergency room visits and even job performance.
Allergies and asthma are very common chronic conditions in the United States, affecting both children and adults. According to the Allergy Foundation of America, allergies affect up to 50 million people each year, leading to symptoms that can be mild to severe and debilitating. Severe chronic nasal symptoms can lead to recurrent sinus infections, impaired sleep, and reduced work performance. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports up to 25 million people in the United States suffer from asthma. Asthma symptoms can be mild to severe and life-threatening and are often triggered by sensitization to pollen, pet dander, and dust mites. Allergen-induced asthma exacerbations can lead to severe life-threatening wheezing and coughing.
Increasing pollen concentrations can be linked to emergency hospital visits and medication purchases, as well as susceptibility to viral infections through weakened immune responses and respiratory inflammation. It was recently found that the early onset of spring and pollen dynamics were associated with a 17% increase in hospital admissions among asthma patients in Maryland.
Throughout the United States., asthma accounts for 9.8 million outpatient visits, 1.8 million emergency department visits, and 188,968 inpatient visits annually. The longer the pollen season lingers, the worse the impacts become.
Fortunately, many very effective ways exist to diagnose and treat this growing allergy and asthma epidemic. However, this comes at a great cost.
The CDC estimates the total annual cost of asthma in the United States is around $80 billion. This includes direct medical expenses such as hospitalization, medication, and doctor visits, as well as indirect costs like lost productivity and missed workdays. When breaking down the costs further, the National Library of Medicine reports that asthma was responsible for $3 billion in economic losses because of missed work and school days, $29 billion from asthma-related deaths, and $50.3 billion in medical costs. Additionally, allergies are estimated to cost nearly $18 billion annually. These costs are expected to rise due to elongated allergy seasons and higher pollen counts, resulting in further economic burden.
Although not often recognized as a serious concern by businesses and employers, allergies cost an estimated 4 million days of missed work per year due to related sickness and cause a 21% drop in productivity.
In its aggregate, the economic weight carried by allergy sufferers is enormous: A Hewitt Associates study found that increased absenteeism and reduced productivity due to allergies cost U.S. companies more than $250 million. For employers and businesses, this drains productivity, increases absences, and impacts a company's bottom line. High turnover rates can also result in additional costs for employers, such as recruiting and training new employees.
The impact of pollen allergies and asthma on individuals and the economy is growing in severity. Earlier onset spring and longer pollen seasons result in more severe symptoms, increased hospitalizations, and higher medical costs. As the prevalence of allergies and asthma continues to rise, it is crucial to prioritize cost-effective diagnosis, treatment, and management to improve the quality of life for individuals and reduce the economic burden on society.
Over-the-counter medications can provide some relief. However, this leads allergy and asthma sufferers to guess what they are treating, limiting their availability to more effective prevention and treatment strategies. By consulting with a board-certified allergist, cost-effective diagnostics and treatments are available with tailored and individualized therapy that targets the relief of symptoms, prevention of exacerbations and hospitalizations and improved quality of life at home and in the workplace. These prevention and treatment strategies can reduce our society's economic burden.
Robert McDermott, MD, is a board-certified allergist and immunologist at the helm of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology of the Rockies, PC, a part of the AllerVie Health network. McDermott launched the practice in 2008 to serve allergy, asthma, and immunology patients around Colorado. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, McDermott earned his medical degree from the University of Colorado in Denver, where he also completed his internal medicine residency.