Climate change has been a hot topic lately – it’s a fact that the earth’s temperature is rising, the ice caps are melting, and weather has become more extreme.1 We don’t immediately associate this topic with health and disease. However, global climate change has multiple effects on human health with vulnerable populations such as children disproportionately affected. It is imperative to understand the effect of climate change in relation to health needs of our children and learn how we as pediatricians can help.
Two health conditions that are directly affected by climate change are allergies and asthma. In the United States, 40% of children have nasal allergies and 9% of children have asthma. Climate change has already led to earlier springs and later winters, prolonging pollen season. A study of 60 pollen collecting stations in the U.S. and Canada found that pollen season is now 20 days longer than it was in 1990. Additionally, pollen counts have also increased over the last 20 years, leading to a more intense pollen season. Scientists predict that average pollen counts in 2040 will be double what they were in 2000.2
Increased temperatures with climate change can also aggravate pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma. Children under age 15 with asthma are responsible for 2 million emergency department visits each year. Asthma is also the third leading cause of hospitalization in this population. Increased temperatures cause increase in certain ozone levels, which can cause airway inflammation and damage lung tissue further. Scientists have noted that spikes in these certain ozone levels correspond with increases in ER visits and hospitalizations for those with asthma.
Climate change can also cause an increase in number of extreme weather events.3 Mold growth is related to increased storms, flooding, and humidity and will develop in an indoor area if wet for more than 24-48 hours. Mold is known to decrease air quality in home and school environments and can cause respiratory irritation. It is a common trigger for asthma and allergies.
How can pediatricians protect patients from worsening asthma and allergy symptoms? A great first step is teaching families to reduce exposure. Using online tools like the website pollen.com, pediatricians can show families how to check pollen levels near their home. When pollen levels are high, counsel families to limit outside exposure as much as possible. Another important step is to learn about your patient’s personal asthma triggers and recommend minimizing contact, as avoiding triggers is the best way to prevent asthma episodes. For example, if dust mites are a trigger, recommending measures such as airtight covers around pillows to limit exposure. Finally, help the family create an action plan with each high-risk patient. Prior to allergy and asthma season is the best time, so patients have therapies and resources needed when symptoms begin.
Although climate change can feel overwhelming, talking with families during clinic visits and making small changes can help create long term solutions for our future generations and for this planet.4 We can also take action outside of our clinical settings to reduce the impact of climate change:
- Plant trees in the community: Adding trees to a community can help improve air quality, especially in urban areas. As an added benefit, they also improve mental health. Certain trees can worsen the spread of pollen, so use this guide from the Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology to learn which plants are best for people affected by allergies.
- Reduce energy consumption and waste: Turn the lights off when leaving a room. Use public transportation when it’s a safe option. Donate non-perishable food items to limit the waste in our landfills. Recycle.
- Invest in efficient and renewable energy: Having homes with solar panels is energy saving and reduces our carbon footprint. We can also reach out to local leaders to support regulations that require new buildings to utilize renewable energy and support energy-saving policies.
Physicians can make a big difference to their patients’ health by addressing issues related to respiratory health. Helping families create an action plan can help reduce the severity of seasonal allergies as well as reduce potentially harmful asthma exacerbations.
Smridhi (Simi) Mahajan, MD
- “Climate Change Evidence: How Do We Know?”. Climate Change: Vital Signs Of The Planet, 2021, https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.
- “Climate Change And Allergies”. C-CHANGE | Harvard T.H. Chan School Of Public Health, 2021, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/climate-change-and-allergies/.
- “Climate Change Indicators: Weather And Climate”. EPA, 2021, https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/weather-climate#:~:text=Scientific%20studies%20indicate%20that%20extreme,storms%2C%20floods%2C%20and%20droughts.
- “Talking With Children About Climate Change”. Healthychildren.Org, 2021, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/all-around/Pages/Talking-with-Children-about-Climate-Change.aspx.