Air Pollution, Pollen & Allergies: What’s the Link?

Both pollen and air pollution impact our health, but how are they connected and can they interact to cause more severe health problems?

Yes – Air Pollution Can Make Pollen Allergy Worse

There is evidence to show that air pollution exposure can make symptoms worse for seasonal allergy sufferers:

In one study, researchers examined air pollution exposure and symptom severity for 1400 people with allergic rhinitis in 17 European cities. They found that two types of air pollutant in particular were associated with worsened allergic symptoms: Nitrogen Oxide and PM2.5.

Allergy sufferers living in cities with high levels of PM2.5 were found to be the most affected when it came to severe symptoms, where an increase of 5 micrograms of fine particulate matter concentration was associated with a 17% higher chance of severe rhinitis symptoms.

Another study found strong associations between allergic rhinitis symptoms during high ozone days during the grass pollen season.

Is Pollen a Form of Air Pollution?

Pollen is technically a type of Particulate Matter but because most intact pollen grains are larger than 10 um, they don’t usually fall into the PM10 category and are typically too large to enter our lungs.

Occasionally, however, pollen particles can rupture into smaller particles – in these instances, the smaller fragments of pollen grain can become small enough to be classified as PM10, or even PM2.5, and can enter our airways.

What’s the Difference Between Pollen & Air Pollution?

As outlined above, pollen can fall under one of the categories of air pollution if the particles are small enough, so the main difference is one of size. However, its important to note that unlike air pollution which can be man-made, pollen is only ever a natural phenomena; It is essentially ‘plant sperm’ which gets moved around by the wind, insects and water.

Is Pollen a Contributor to Air Pollution?

During pollen season, there are lots of additional particles in the air, some of them small enough to get into our airways. For sensitive groups like those with allergic asthma, this additional respiratory threat can pose a serious threat, especially when combined with air pollution.

Thunderstorm Asthma

The phenomena of Thunderstorm Asthma is a great example of this. It occurs when there is lots of pollen in the air and certain weather conditions coincide: hot, dry, windy and stormy. This collision of environmental factors causes pollen grains to burst into smaller pieces, making it easier for the particles to be blown around and inhaled.

In November 2016, Melbourne Australia experienced the world’s largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event, causing a 672% increase in respiratory-related cases in Melbourne and Geelong public hospitals. (Source).

Thunderstorm asthma makes allergy worse

Key Takeaways

Seasonal Allergy Sufferers Need Air Pollution Information Too

If allergy sufferers are likely to feel worse when pollution levels are high, businesses should take this into account by ensuring their audience has access to all of the information they need to manage their environmental exposure and stay healthy. Presented in isolation, air pollution and pollen information risks delivering just one half of the picture.

No Pollen? How to Engage Seasonal Allergy Sufferers Year-Round

By providing hyper-local real-time air quality information through the pollen ‘off-seasons’, businesses (especially allergy therapeutic companies) can ensure they provide relevant environmental health insights year-round.

This added layer of environmental context helps ensure brand stickiness, reduces customer churn between seasons, and significantly reduces the cost of re-acquiring customers each allergy season.

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Dr Yvonne Boose
Dr Yvonne Boose

Data and Accuracy Lead Scientist @BreezoMeter. I hold a PhD in Atmospheric Physics and formerly worked as a Postdoc at the German Aerospace Center. I love translating science to real-life improvements at BreezoMeter.