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Decoding Pollen Counts

Of all the things that can cause an allergy, pollen is one of the most pervasive. Many of the foods, drugs, or animals that cause allergies can be avoided to a great extent; even insects and household dust are not inescapable. However, short of staying indoors when the pollen count is high - and even that may not help - there is no easy way to evade windborne pollen.

Bless you! Gesundheit! Excuse me! If you have nasal allergies (allergic rhinitis) you might hear these words a lot. You are not alone - there are approximately 41 million Americans who have allergic rhinitis. So what is allergic rhinitis? First of all, let's break down the word "rhinitis" into a simpler meaning. The Greek word "rhin" means nose, and the suffix "itis" means inflammation. Pesky pollen is the culprit.

During the height of allergy season you hear them on the radio, see them on TV, and read about them in the newspaper. They're pollen counts: the numbers that tell us how much pollen is in the air. But hearing overall pollen counts may not help you much unless you know how to interpret them.

How Pollen Is Counted

A pollen count is the average number of pollen grains (per cubic meter of air) collected during a specific time period. The grains are collected in air-sampling devices onto a sticky surface. The pollen grains are then identified for type and counted under a microscope. Pollen counts are usually pertinent for a large region since pollen is wind-borne and can travel long distances.

All pollens are not created equal, however, and some pack more of an allergy punch than others do. The most potent allergenic pollens come from the grass family, ragweed, and mountain cedar, birch and oak trees. Pollen counts are historical, meaning that they report the amount of pollen that was in the air during a certain time period. Typically, news services report yesterday's pollen counts in your area. On the other hand, pollen forecasts are predictions that estimate what upcoming pollen counts will be. To be most accurate, historical pollen data must be taken into account, along with wind and precipitation forecasts, when making a pollen forecast.

How Pollen Counts Are Reported

Pollen counts are often given during weather reports. Pollen measurements are given in grains per cubic meter of air. Sometimes the pollen counts are given as a number, and at other times they are described as "low," "medium," or "high." You may also hear that counts are "rising" or "falling."

Basically, the higher the pollen count, the more affected an allergy sufferer will be. People who suffer from seasonal allergies have symptoms when pollen counts are between 20 and 100 grains per cubic meter.

It's important to realize that pollen counts may not be the most accurate determination of how you personally will be affected. Let's say, for example, you're allergic to weed pollens, but not to grass pollens. You turn on the radio and hear that the pollen count is high and assume that you will be uncomfortable. But, remember, the pollen reading may not be describing specific types of pollen. So even though the count is high, it may not be a bad day for you.

Whom Pollen Counts Help

Knowing pollen counts is especially helpful to allergists in making better patient diagnoses. Government health departments can use daily pollen counts to evaluate air quality for their city. Allergy sufferers benefit from learning pollen counts by being better able to plan their outdoor activities, vacations, etc.

A Microscopic Landscape of Pollen - Magnified 1,000 times
pollen

This photo shows the converging edges of two male "flowers" (raised pairs of pollen sacs) of a North American jack-in-the-pulpit plant. Four tiny, round grains of pollen covered with short spines are suspended between two such sacs, waiting for winds or insects to transport them from the flower to fertilize plants farther away.

A mystery surrounds the jack-in-the-pulpit, whose pollen represents either a highly evolved state or a previously unrecognized primitive condition for pollen of the flowering plants. Pollen sacs similar to these have been found on fossils of a plant that lived 216 million years ago in the Southwestern United States.

Ragweed and other weeds such as curly dock, lambs quarters, pigweed, plantain, sheep sorrel and sagebrush are some of the most prolific producers of pollen allergens. Although the ragweed pollen season runs from August to November, ragweed pollen levels usually peak in Mid September in many areas in the country.

Pollen counts are highest between 5 a.m. & 10 a.m. and on dry, hot and windy days. Go outside later in the day when pollen counts are generally lower. They are also lower during and right after a rainfall, or on cool, cloudy days.

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