When it comes to pollen allergies, there are not only bad days and bad seasons, experts with the right technology can now break down pollen counts by the hour.
Specifically, pollen counts are lower between 4 a.m. and noon, a new study done in Georgia found. They're higher between 2 p.m. and 9 p.m.
While experts have been monitoring pollen levels for many years to better understand them and advise patients, they typically measure counts for a 24-hour period, said lead author Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with Atlanta Allergy and Asthma.
For the new study, his team and researchers at Emory University in Atlanta used imaging technology to measure pollen in real time.
The investigators found that higher counts seemed to align with rising temperatures.
“Now we've got some real-time data and can tell patients if they're allergic and they want to do outdoor activities, they should really do it early in the morning,” Fineman said.
The research team monitored hourly pollen levels in three areas of Atlanta for a week in March 2021. They averaged pollen concentrations during the week to reduce day-to-day fluctuations caused by weather changes.
Warming trends in the United States due to climate change have caused pollen counts to rise earlier in the year than they used to. Plants tend to release more pollen when the temperature is warmer.
Fineman said specific advice will still vary by patient, but someone with a severe springtime pollen allergy should do any outdoor activity early in the morning.
The research affirms what allergists knew about pollen counts varying during the day, said Dr. Payel Gupta, medical director for LifeMD in New York City. She was not involved with the study but reviewed the findings.
It's also true that weather variations, in addition to warming, can spread pollen in different ways, Gupta said. For example, windy days disperse more pollen, while heavy rain can lift grass pollen from the ground.
“I'm sure they saw a lot of variation depending on the day,” she said. “I would like to see even more data on all the little factors that might have played a role.”
Knowing when pollen counts are highest may be helpful for allergy sufferers who want to leave their windows open at times or exercise outside, Gupta said.
“I always tell [patients], if they're going to be working out outdoors, check the pollen count,” Gupta said. “This would be helpful for people to say, 'OK, I'm going to try to work out during these hours as opposed to these hours.'”
During pollen season, it's a must for those with allergies who spend time outdoors to clean up when they get inside, washing their face and hands, removing their shoes to avoid tracking pollen inside and changing their clothes, Gupta advised. She also suggests shampooing hair before bedtime.
Gupta could see the advantage to transferring this technology to something that is user-friendly.
“If you could transfer that information to an app, then it's really nice because then you have real-time information for people that are suffering from allergies,” she said.
For those who need something more, over-the-counter medication can be helpful, but it's beneficial to get advice from a pro on how to use it best, Gupta added.
“A lot of the counseling that we do as an allergist is just tweaking the way that someone's using the medications that they already have in their home,” she said.
When someone has tried everything and has had no relief, immunotherapy can help. That might mean shots for an array of environmental allergens. For some, it can be U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved tablets, which are available for both dust mite and grass allergies.
“The allergy shots and the allergy tablets really do help patients," Gupta said. "With tablets, you can do it from your home as opposed to having to go to the allergist's office, so it makes it feel less cumbersome. I don't think all patients know that option exists.”
To treat symptoms they do have, patients should first visit an allergist and be tested to determine what is affecting them, Fineman advised.
“Then they can come up with a treatment plan,” he said.
The research was recently published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and is being presented this week at a meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Louisville, Ky.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on allergens and pollen.
SOURCES: Stanley Fineman, MD, allergist, Atlanta Allergy and Asthma, and adjunct associate professor, department of pediatrics/allergy division, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta; Payel Gupta, MD, medical director, LifeMD, New York City; Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Nov. 1, 2022