Preliminary results of a new study make us sit up and take notice: the higher the ozone load, the worse pollen allergy sufferers’ symptoms seem to be, especially lung symptoms. This is the first time in the world that a direct correlation has been made between the pollen count, air quality and allergy symptoms. This was announced by allergy experts today, Wednesday, at a joint press conference held by MedUni Vienna's Pollen Monitoring Service and the IGAV (Allergen Avoidance Interest Group) information platform. They also gave a forecast of the upcoming pollen season. This year, birch trees make for an interesting situation but are expected to flower less vigorously in most regions of Austria.
The cold and snowy weather we experienced in January meant a later start for pollen from the early flowering alder and hazel. As always, we can still expect high pollen counts in medium-altitude locations, under favourable weather conditions. The good news is: "The peak load is already behind us in the warmer regions and in valleys, basins and low-lying areas," explains Katharina Bastl from MedUni Vienna's Pollen Monitoring Service. The forecast for birch blossom is somewhat contradictory this year. Says biologist Bastl: "Based on phenology, we can expect a less intense year but the modelling data show quite different results. So, although we have strong grounds for hoping for less intense birch flowering, this will not necessarily apply to all regions of Austria."
Air pollution adds an extra burden
It is not only pollen that makes life difficult for allergy sufferers. Airborne pollutants, which are incorporated with each breath, aggravate allergic conditions. "Loads from particulates, nitrogen dioxide and ozone have been shown to be harmful to public health and can even reduce life expectancy," points out Hans-Peter Hutter, Deputy Head of the Division of Environmental Hygiene and Environmental Medicine at MedUni Vienna's Center for Public Health. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), around 7,500 people in Austria die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution.1
Ozone alert for asthma sufferers
High ozone levels, in particular, stress already irritated airways. "Compared with other airborne pollutants, this irritant gas is thought to have the most harmful effect," says Daniel Doberer, Head of the Asthma Outpatient Clinic at MedUni Vienna's Division of Pulmonology. He explains: "Due to its low water solubility, ozone can penetrate deep into the lungs and causes the formation of aggressive oxygen radicals, which destroy the respiratory epithelium. This makes the protective layer more permeable to allergens and other airborne pollutants." The consequences for asthma patients are aggravated symptoms, increased need for medication, deterioration of lung function, more exacerbations (sudden worsening of the condition) and heightened reaction to allergens. Says Doberer: "The situation is so bad that, when ozone concentrations are high, significantly more patients end up in emergency rooms." It is estimated that up to 23 million people a year worldwide require emergency treatment due to ozone.2 Allergy sufferers should therefore be careful in summer, because strong solar radiation goes hand-in-hand with high ozone concentrations," says doctor of environmental medicine Hutter, warning about so-called summer smog. "The highest ozone concentrations are usually measured between May and September – just when pollen is in the air." On top of that, pollen has a greater allergenic effect when combined with ozone.
Study indicates correlation between pollen release, air quality & symptoms
A joint study conducted by the Aerobiology and Pollen Information research group at MedUni Vienna and Paracelsus Private Medical University in Salzburg has looked at the impact on pollen allergy sufferers of air pollution in Vienna due to ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulates. "Ozone in particular seems to have an impact, especially for those who are allergic to grass and birch pollen – the higher the ozone concentration, the worse their lung symptoms, in particular," says Uwe E. Berger, Head of MedUni Vienna's Pollen Monitoring Service, outlining the initial findings: "In future this might explain why symptoms can be severe, even though there is relatively little pollen in the air."
The new data will play an important role for future prognoses. In order to make an accurate prediction of how allergy sufferers will fare during the pollen season, we not only need to know when the pollen will be released but also need information about the weather, the blooming behaviour of plants and also about air quality. Says Berger: "For the first time we are able to show which parameters are interacting and to what extent when patients experience symptoms." The service offered by the Pollen Monitoring Service is therefore constantly evolving from mere pollen forecasting to predicting people’s individual loads.
Pollen Diary & Pollen App
An essential element for research and for sufferers is the Pollen Diary, which can be accessed via the Pollen App or on the website: www.pollentagebuch.at. This is where allergy sufferers enter their symptoms on a daily basis, if possible, so they can see at a glance which loads are actually responsible for their symptoms and to what extent, what influence a change of location has and whether treatment is having the desired effect.New questions have been incorporated to provide a service that is more tailored to people's different life situations:
- At what point in the day was the load greatest?
- At what time of the day and/or night were you outside?
- How badly did the load affect your ability to work/efficiency?
The design of the Pollen App has also been overhauled during the annual update and meets all the optical and functional requirements of a mobile application.
Moreover, the "Allergy risk" has been personalised for the first time. This gives users who regularly enter their symptoms into the Pollen Diary an overview of their personal load at each hour of the day. Previously they were only given an average value for the generally experienced load. An individually tailored guide is now available. The Pollen App is available as a free download for smartphones and tablets with iOS and Android operating systems: www.pollenwarndienst.at, as well as in app stores.