As tree pollen levels increase in the Northern hemisphere, we thought it timely to explore this airborne irritant and its impact on individual sufferers and healthcare systems for you in detail.
When Does Tree Pollen Allergy Start?
Traditionally, tree pollen season starts when certain trees begin to flower and produce pollen as part of their natural reproduction cycle. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere, some trees will start to flower already in December and January while the main tree pollen season falls between February and June.
Though we can provide rough timelines for pollen season, it’s important to note that the beginning and ending stages of pollen allergy seasons in general are becoming harder to predict due to climate change impacts on seasonality.
How Does Tree Pollen Spread & What Role Does the Weather Play?
Tree pollen can be spread by insects, water and wind but the pollen spreader most responsible for our allergic symptoms is wind. This is because many plants that rely on the wind for pollen distribution tend to produce high amounts of comparably small pollen, which gets carried far and wide in an untargeted way. In turn, we inhale this pollen and start to feel the sore effects of seasonal allergy.
While you might assume an event like a thunderstorm would reduce the general presence of pollen in the air, sometimes the very opposite can be true. For example, during some thunderstorms, as typically experienced in Australia in early summer, pollen grains can rupture which causes them to break into smaller pieces, spread more easily and cause particularly severe symptoms in vulnerable populations. We write about the phenomena known as ‘thunderstorm asthma’ in more detail here.
On the other hand, research also shows that warmer winter seasons might be leading to a significant growth in oak pollen in the years to come, with the potential to place further burden on health systems in particular areas.
Which Trees Cause Hayfever Symptoms?
In different parts of the globe at different times of the year, the trees causing hay fever symptoms and other allergic reactions are likely to vary. At this time of the year in Europe, the worst offenders in large areas are likely to be trees like Hazel and Alder. Some parts of the USA might see more Juniper and other parts might see Alder, Pine, Elm or Oak.
High Levels of Juniper, Pollen in Texas, USA - Feb 2021
High Levels of Hazel Pollen in Mainland Europe- Feb 2021
Different Trees, Different Symptoms
It’s important to note that not all trees cause allergic symptoms, and some allergy sufferers may be more sensitive to specific tree pollen types. For example, Birch, Cedar and Oak trees produce particularly highly allergenic pollen. Also, the severity of allergic reaction in different people might range from sneezing, red watery eyes, and minor respiratory agitations to full-blown asthma attacks and worse.
As the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) explains here, some people with a particular allergy to trees like Birch and Alder can even experience what we associate with food allergy reactions, called oral allergy syndrome(!) This happens because the tree pollen structure is similar to the protein in certain types of apples and cherries, as well as different nuts and vegetables - a so-called cross-reactivity.
How Tree Pollen Season Places Extra Burden on Healthcare Systems
Each year, healthcare systems experience an uptake of patients as a result of pollen allergy symptoms. According to the CDC, 12.0 million annual doctor visits in the US see allergic rhinitis as the primary diagnosis.
Studies have found that tree pollen allergy in particular can exacerbate asthma attacks. For example, this Canadian study found that for an interquartile increase in daily tree pollen concentration, the daily number of hospitalizations due to asthma attacks was over 2% higher.
Temperature, humidity, and precipitation can also affect tree pollen counts in the air, which in turn correlates to increased seasonal allergy linked hospitalization cases. This study examined the effects of variations in meteorological factors on the number of hospital visits of patients with tree pollen allergy. The study found that an increase of 1°C in minimum temperature during March could increase the number of tree pollen allergy patients by 14% from April to July.
As the pandemic has developed, there have also been increasing reports of patients becoming confused between COVID-19 and seasonal allergy symptoms, placing extra burden on healthcare systems.
How Can We Beat Tree Pollen Allergy?
Healthcare, insurance, lifestyle, and smart home brands in particular can help individuals prevent and alleviate hay fever symptoms. How? By utilizing actionable real-time location-specific tree pollen data, from pollen heatmap forecasts to consumer-specific prompts based on pollen type, plant, species and more.
Tree pollen can settle on skin and hair. On days with higher concentrations in the air, prompt people to pursue various self-care tips like showering after getting back home or before going into bed. This will help them remove tree pollen from their body, bedsheets, and clean clothes.
Help individuals choose days with lower tree pollen concentrations to hang laundry outside by offering location-specific weather forecasts and outdoor air quality data highlighting tree pollen levels.
Alert customers when to close and open windows during peak pollen hours. This will help reduce the presence of pollen inside homes and businesses, and maintain healthier indoor air quality.
Prompt customers when to engage air purification systems according to the tree pollen concentrations at their locations.
To make allergy medication work effectively, it needs to be taken before developing symptoms. Therefore, healthcare providers can utilize a daily timeline of relevant pollen types combined with telehealth solutions in the form of alerts and information about when to take allergy medicine.
Help consumers maintain a general awareness and self manage. With real-time updates on tree pollen concentrations and relevant meteorological data analysis, different apps can incorporate allergy season considerations into their users’ daily plans and assist them in leading a healthier lifestyle.