What is Pollen? It’s Time to Talk about the Birds & the Bees!

As climate change makes pollen seasons longer and more unpredictable, allergy sufferers face a bigger daily health challenge. But to solve a problem we must first understand it: let’s explore what exactly pollen is, why it makes people sneeze and suffer, and how better pollen tracking technology enables health providers to provide the type of effective symptom prevention allergy sufferers have been waiting for.

What Is Pollen? 

Pollen’s Role in Creating ‘Baby Plants’

Pollen grains are scientifically known as ‘microgametophytes’ of seed plants and are responsible for producing male gametes – i.e. sperm cells. The granules find their way to the female parts (female ‘stigma’) of the same plants, eventually resulting in fertilization.

In other words, pollination is the natural way for plants to reproduce and create offspring for the next generation. The seeds contained in pollen grains carry the genetic code required to produce a new plant.

In this interesting article, the Guardian explores whether or not ‘botanical sexism’ could be partly to blame for the high pollen counts in some cities (!).

Are There Different Types Of Pollen?

We usually categorize airborne pollen into three main types:

  • Tree pollenTree pollen season in the US can start as early as January and last through June. The main ‘culprits’ of tree pollen include Elm, Oak, Ash, Birch, and more.
  • Grass pollen – In northern US regions, grass pollen season commonly reaches its peak through late spring and early summer, while in southern US regions it can be an annual affair. Common allergenic grasses include Bermuda, Kentucky, Rye, and more.
  • Weed pollen – Most common in the late summer and fall, weed pollen, especially in the form of ragweed pollen, impacts most of the US, especially eastern and midwestern states.

What Does Pollen Contain To Make Someone Sneeze So Much?

It’s not necessarily what pollen grains contain exactly but their tiny size and ability to invade and irritate our airways that make these allergens cause such a strong reaction among allergy sufferers.

Similar to other allergens, when people with seasonal allergies inhale pollen, their immune system identifies it as a threat and responds by releasing histamine into the bloodstream to combat the intruders. This often triggers nerves in the nose to elicit a sneeze in an attempt to eject the invading particles. It also causes other pollen allergy symptoms such as runny nose, watery eyes, and coughing.

Can You See Pollen? What Does it Look Like?

To the naked eye, pollen is a fine and powdery yellow substance. However, an individual grain can usually only be observed with a microscope because the size is so small – (it’s in the range of a single human hair strand).

Pollen under microscope

Plant pollen under an electron microscope – image via cell.com

Is Pollen Alive? How Does Pollen Move?

Pollen typically gets moved around by insects, wind, and water. For seasonal allergies, we particularly care about pollen grains that move with the wind because they travel in large amounts in an untargeted way.

Plants can release billions of grains at one time, nature’s method of ensuring they reach female plants.

‘Asthma Thunderstorms’ & Allergy Season: Does Pollen Decrease After A Rainstorm?

You might assume pollen levels will drop after it has rained, but this doesn’t always happen due to a process called ‘osmotic shock’.

One leading theory of Thunderstorm Asthma is that particular types of pollen grains can rupture and shed much finer, highly allergenic granules.

Thunderstorm Asthma

These ruptured pollen particles can penetrate deeper into our airways due to their small size. Searching for the cause of the Thunderstorm Asthma phenomenon, researchers discovered that these allergenic pollen fragments, originating mainly from grass, Parietaria plants, and olive trees, are concentrated at ground level by internal wind forces of the thunderstorm,  causing more severe reactions during thunderstorms.

Allergy and health experts say that greater public health responses are needed to contend with the acute impacts of pollen-induced Thunderstorm Asthma, and highlight better forecasting and asthma management as recommended preventive measures.

Improved Pollen Data: Taking Action For Allergy Sufferers

Traditional pollen measurement methods are limited: Pollen trap stations operate by blowing hot air on sticky film strips and require someone to manually count pollen grains under a microscope. This time-intensive method means that there is often a 1-3 day delay in reporting pollen counts and there is no forecasting ability.

Additionally, as stations can only report on pollen counts at their exact location, there is no data available in areas between stations. Pollen production is highly localized due to a number of factors such as vegetation cover and type, topography, climate, and more. Thus, the pollen measured at a station may not represent the pollen in an area just a short distance away.

Bridging The Gaps With Live Pollen Intelligence

BreezoMeter overcomes the limitations of traditional pollen reporting by leveraging multiple data sources including land cover maps, satellite imagery, weather information, and monitoring station data, and combines this with dispersion modeling to produce accurate and granular personalized pollen forecasts.

By utilizing a health-based universal pollen index, BreezoMeter also standardizes reporting to emphasize the personal risk for different individuals based on grass, weed, and tree pollen categories and 15 different plant species they might be sensitive to. This powers personalized health-focused pollen insights and actionable allergy management recommendations at the most crucial times, such as when to take medication, when to avoid outdoor activity when the pollen count is high, and when to choose travel routes with lower allergy risks.

In addition, historical pollen data creates opportunities for allergy pharmaceuticals to enhance their demand planning strategies and inform market analysis to better capitalize on seasonal consumer trends during peak demand periods.

Key Takeaways – Why Accurate Pollen Tracking is More Crucial Than Ever

Weather and climate play a huge role when it comes to predicting pollen counts and managing seasonal allergies. Because climate change is making pollen seasons more unpredictable, the ability to track personal pollen exposure has become incredibly important and valuable, both for improving health outcomes and for treatment providers looking to stay ahead of the curve.

Allergy management brands looking to stay competitive and enhance their offerings can today deliver more effective and personalized solutions by leveraging pollen data in multiple ways, such as making pollen exposure visible, helping individuals to understand their personal sensitivities, and by forecasting hyper-local pollen conditions to deliver tailored health insights when it matters most.

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Dr Gabriela Adler
Dr Gabriela Adler Katz

Chief Scientist @BreezoMeter. I hold an MSc & PhD in atmospheric science and formerly worked as a research scientist at NOAA. I believe it is my greatest duty as a scientist to bring science to the people!