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Can terrible pollen levels make the pandemic worse? These researchers say yes, it’s possible

Peer-reviewed research published by the National Academy of Sciences suggests exposure to pollen may increase the risk of developing COVID-19.

WASHINGTON — Dealing with pollen, an annoying and sometimes painful rite of spring for allergy sufferers, may also pose a risk for anyone waiting for a coronavirus vaccine.

Peer-reviewed research published by the National Academy of Sciences suggests exposure to pollen may increase the risk of developing COVID-19.

The essential problem with pollen, the researchers and allergists submit, is the particles from plants and flowers we all inhale each spring cause a weakening of the immune system.

“At times, when the pollen is very high, it can make our immune systems a little stressed, and have our immune systems work a little harder,” said Dr. Troy Baker, a Tysons-based allergist with Kaiser Permanente. “The fact that our body’s defenses are dealing with pollen can make us more vulnerable sometimes to infection.”

Pollen in the body suppresses proteins tasked with reducing virus reproduction. Even if a person does not suffer from seasonal allergies, pollen still weakens immune responses to airborne viruses. 

The researchers concluded this weakened response was also true for COVID-19.

In their study, tracking 2020 pollen levels in 31 countries across five continents, scientists found higher levels of pollen correlated with higher rates of COVID-19.

“We found that pollen, sometimes in synergy with humidity and temperature, explained, on average, 44% of the [coronavirus] infection rate,” the researchers wrote.

“Lockdown halved infection rates under similar pollen concentrations.”

As for what the research means for people building immunity or waiting for the vaccine, Baker said the study potentially strengthens the case for mask-wearing outdoors – especially for at-risk individuals who need to keep immune systems as healthy as possible.

“I think that there's a balance there that you want to feel comfortable,” Baker said. “But also know that a mask can sometimes be a protection against the pollen and the matter in the air.”

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