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allergies | asthma | brain development | child health | equity | heat | low birth weight | mental health | preterm birth
This guide explains why climate change matters to children with allergies like hay fever and provides steps you can take to keep your child healthy in a changing climate.
Warming temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide in the air from fossil fuels are contributing to longer and more intense pollen seasons, which can worsen allergy and asthma symptoms in children.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, is one of the most common types of allergies in children, affecting 9% of kids in the United States. If a child has hay fever, their body reacts to allergens in the air, like pollen. People with hay fever may have:
- Watery, itchy, or red eyes
- Stuffy or runny nose
Hay fever can also worsen asthma symptoms in children. If your child has asthma, you may also find our Climate Change and Asthma guide useful.
What does climate change have to do with allergies?
Burning fossil fuels releases carbon pollution that warms the planet and drives climate change. The carbon pollution and warmer temperatures cause plants to produce more pollen over longer growing seasons. Burning fossil fuels also releases air pollutants and air particles that can make allergy symptoms worse.
- Pollen counts have been increasing over the last 20+ years in the United States at least in part due to higher temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air.
- Scientists predict that average pollen counts in 2040 will be more than double what they were in 2000.
Climate change has already led to earlier springs and later winters, which means a longer growing season for plants that make pollen.
- A study of 60 pollen-collecting stations in the US and Canada found that pollen season is now 20 days longer on average than it was in 1990.
- One study found that in 2000, annual pollen production began on April 14 and peaked on May 1, but that in 2040, pollen levels are predicted to peak as early as April 8.
Reducing fossil fuels can have the double benefit of slowing climate change and reducing allergy symptoms and asthma attacks that are triggered by allergies.
How can I protect my child in worsening allergy seasons?
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your child’s exposure to pollen and other allergens:
- Check the pollen levels near your home using online tools like pollen.com
- When pollen levels are high, keep your child indoors and close your windows
- Meet with your child’s doctor before allergy season begins so you have medicine ready when your child starts having symptoms
- Consider purchasing an air filter for your house or child’s bedroom
- Change clothes and take off your shoes when you come inside
- Have your child shower and shampoo at night before bed
How can I do my part to take action against climate change?
Climate change can feel overwhelming, but the good news is we already have solutions to improve the health of your child and children all over the world. The same actions we take to curb climate change also have immediate health benefits.
Here are simple steps you can take:
- Plant trees and other vegetation where you live, and encourage your community to do the same. Trees provide shade to help you stay cool on hot days. Adding trees and other vegetation to your neighborhood can also help improve the air quality where you live, especially in urban areas, and can improve mental health. Some types of plants can cause more pollen in the air, so check with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s guide to plant selection to learn which plants are safer for people with allergies.
- Choose walking, biking or public transit whenever possible, and consider carpooling. If you are buying a car, choose an electric car or find one with better fuel economy. The more gas a car burns per mile, the more harmful air pollution it generates. Getting exercise may also help improve a child’s mental health.
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle. A timeless piece of advice. The more we buy new, the greater our carbon footprint.
- Invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Ask your local leaders to invest in renewable energy in public buildings, and support building regulations that require solar panels and energy-saving policies for new buildings. Conserving energy saves money and reduces our carbon footprint.
- Start a conversation. Talk to your family and friends about climate change to make sure they know it’s a health issue, especially for our children, and that we need to work with everyone to take action to fight this climate crisis. Work with your place of worship and in your children’s school to see what you can do to spread the word and keep our kids healthy, and get involved in climate change planning at the state and local level.
- Get involved. Many towns and cities want to decarbonize and become more resilient to climate change—in fact they’re leading on this issue—and parents can play a role in shaping those efforts. Ask local leaders if your community has a climate action plan, and how your neighborhood can become safer and healthier by making it greener, more walkable and bike-friendly. You can ask decisionmakers to add green space by planting trees, increase access to public transit, create policies for healthy school environments, and invest in electric vehicle infrastructure. These actions will benefit everyone’s health and especially the health of our children.
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Harvard Chan C-CHANGE does not recommend or endorse any products.
Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH
Aaron examines the human health effects of global environmental changes with the aim of promoting a deeper understanding of these subjects among students, educators, policy makers, and the public.