Exactly What Does the Pollen Count Tell You?

With spring in full swing, you may be thinking of your big plans to get out and enjoy the weather, but if you have allergies, that may be easier said than done. The air in spring is loaded with pollen that can make you miserable. Early in the season, pollen comes primarily from trees, including ash, birch, elm, cedar, mesquite, oak, poplar and more. In late spring, weed and grass pollen come on the scene, too.

Pollen Count

(Free-Photos / pixabay)

Before you head outside, you may find yourself checking the pollen count. There are lots of cool apps out there that reveal the overall pollen count, or even narrow down to the count of the pollens that affect you most. Others come with diaries that allow you to track the pollen count in coordination with how your allergies made you feel for the day. In addition to the pollen count, these apps may include pollen and allergy forecasts, which we will discuss later in this article.

Many people depend on these metrics to determine if they will go outside and for how long, but how helpful and accurate are these measurements anyway? In this article, we’ll help you understand how these numbers are derived as well as their benefits and limitations.

What is pollen?

Let’s start by defining this microscopic phenomenon of nature that affects us so profoundly. You might think of pollen as plant sperm. Basically, when trees, flowers, weeds, grass, etc. want to spread their influence, they send out their reproductive “dust” to be carried via the wind or insects. You can see big wafts of pollen powder in the air, but without a microscope, you can’t distinguish an individual pollen granule—it’s too small.

Some plants produce an astounding amount of pollen. For example, ragweed (the most allergenic weed in North America responsible for the majority of hay fever), can produce a billion grains of pollen per plant in just one season. Because pollen is very light, it can be carried far away. To use the example of ragweed again, it has been known to be transported as far as 400 miles on the wind.

What’s the threshold for a high or low pollen count?

A pollen count of 1,000 or more is considered high. A pollen count of 50 or less would be considered low. However, if you’re very sensitive to a particular type of pollen, even a low count could unleash a torrent of allergy symptoms.

How is the pollen count determined?

As the name suggests, it is taken by counting the number of pollen grains in the air. It usually involves a spinning rod atop a high building that pulls in air. The pollen from the air amasses on a collection slide over the course of a 24-hour period. Certified pollen collectors then take this slide and, with the help of a microscope, count the pollens. Essentially, the pollen count represents the number of pollen grains in a cubic meter of air collected over a 24-hour period.

How does the pollen count differ from the pollen forecast?

The pollen forecast is a predictive model based not only on the pollen count for the day, but also on a predictive model derived from historical information. It factors in pollen counts and weather forecasts from the past several years to tell you what you might be able to expect for pollen levels. However, since we all know that the weather is anything but predictable, the pollen forecast may miss the mark significantly.

What is the symptom index or allergy forecast?

This is another measurement altogether and often the most helpful one. It takes into account the day’s pollen count, recent pollen counts, the day’s weather, and historical data to give you a general idea of just how bad your symptoms will be for the day.

How does the weather affect pollen?

Rain tends to drive pollen levels down because it makes the pollen damp and heavy so that it settles on the ground. Wind, on the other hand, will pick those pollen granules up, dry them out and get them flowing through the air. Pollen levels generally increase on windy days.

How useful are these pollen-related measurements?

Pollen measurements have become more accurate over time and remain a helpful way to gauge what’s happening outdoors so that you know whether or not you need to stay indoors. Of course, there are lots of variables that depend on you: what you’re allergic to, how sensitive you are to those triggers, etc.

Another challenge is that pollen grains are so small, it’s impossible to keep them out of your indoor living space. So no matter how much you try to avoid pollens, they’ll find their way to you when the kids run outside or when you open the door to retrieve a package off the front porch or when your cat or dog comes inside with pollen in their coat.

So should you get that pollen count app on your phone? Absolutely, but if your allergy problems are severe and/or last for more than a few months of the year, you probably also need to get treatment.

Long-term relief for your allergies

The gold standard for allergy treatment is allergy immunotherapy, which is the only treatment that has been shown to modify the underlying allergy—not just its symptoms. While medications may keep symptoms at bay while you’re taking them, they do not have the power that allergy immunotherapy has to actually change your immune response to allergens in the environment. Besides that, they contain a lot of chemicals that you can avoid with a natural allergy treatment, like immunotherapy.

You can get to the heart of your allergy problem through subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots) or sublingual immunotherapy (allergy drops). At AllergyEasy, we prescribe sublingual immunotherapy or SLIT because it brings the benefits of shots without the safety risks or the hassle of driving to the doctor’s office a couple of times per week for shots. Because SLIT has a higher safety profile, it can be administered at home or on the go. With just a few drops under the tongue each day, you’ll be on your way to long-term allergy relief.

About The Author

Stuart H. Agren, M.D.

Stuart H. Agren, M.D. completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Utah and went on to earn his Doctor of Medicine from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1974. He completed additional training at L.D.S. Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah and then established his private medical practice starting in 1975. Dr. Agren completed a mini-residency in Industrial Medicine at the Robert Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University and also completed training to become a certified Medical Review Officer.

Dr. Agren was the Medical Director at TRW and McDonnell Douglas in Mesa, Arizona and at Stauffer Chemical and Kennecott Copper in Salt Lake City, Utah. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at Arizona State University.

In his private medical practice, Dr. Agren specialized in family practice and allergy. In his work as a private practice allergist, he was one of the first doctors in the country to prescribe sublingual immunotherapy to his patients as an alternative to subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots). He has also been a trailblazer in the field of food allergy treatment and research, developing a program to treat multiple food allergies simultaneously using sublingual immunotherapy. Dr. Agren has been featured on local CBS, NBC, and ABC news affiliates and won the peer-nominated “Top Doc” award from Phoenix Magazine.

After 20 years in private practice, Dr. Agren became the Founder and President of AllergyEasy, which helps primary care physicians around the country offer allergy testing and sublingual immunotherapy treatment to their patients. Over 200 physicians in over 32 states use the AllergyEasy program to help their patients overcome environmental and food allergies and asthma.