Spring sneezers – know your pollen counts

The glorious scents and sights that accompany spring, may bring great discomfort for those who suffer from allergies.

With spring now in full swing, and flowers and grasses in bloom, the pollen count is at an all-time, critical high in the Western Cape.

For those suffering from asthma, it is of particular concern, with many being hospitalised, put on drips and experiencing extreme, potentially fatal reactions to the increase.

Allergy experts at the UCT Lung institute, who monitor the Western Cape, say there is an urgent need for accurate pollen monitoring to be done in the other major cities in South Africa, and is asking for interested commercial sponsors to assist in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Bloemfontein.

As the flowers and grasses burst into bloom, pollen is released into the air.

To help address the problem and find ways of managing it, it is crucial that the level and type of pollen is identified each year.

Frequent lung exposure to an allergen such as pollen can yield a sustained inflammatory allergic response and can be linked to asthma.

There are significant clinical benefits for allergy sufferers and their doctors to acquire accurate, up to date pollen monitoring:

The identification of the offending pollen that is triggering symptoms.

Is it a grass or a tree pollen? If so which one? Knowing what you are breathing in, can help direct allergy testing to find the culprit and save costs.

Up to date counts allow patients with known symptoms to schedule their outdoor activities accordingly – be it picnics or outdoor training schedules, ensuring adequate antihistamines are on hand.

In Cape Town grass and tree pollen levels are currently high. We know this, not only because seasonal hay fever sufferers are sneezing, but because in Cape Town, weekly pollen monitoring is conducted.

Pollen is identified and counted in the research laboratory of the University of Cape Town’s Lung Institute and posted on the website, and the pollen count is also updated at www.pollensa.co.za each week.

UCT has been monitoring pollen in different areas of Cape Town for more than 20 years.

“If there is one thing that we have learnt, it is that each pollen season is different!” said Professor Mike Levin, CEO of the Allergy Foundation of South Africa (AFSA), and head of Allergology at Red Cross Children’s Hospital.

“The pollen count differs each week and each year, so it is very important to monitor the pollen counts for each new season, taking cognisance of weather patterns, like rain, wind, temperature and humidity, that directly affect pollen in the air.”

Grass pollen counts started to increase from mid-September this year and high readings are currently being posted.

The start of the grass pollen season changes every year with pollen levels usually continuing through to January, although high counts have been recorded as late as May.

This is because the many grass species flower at different times of the year. Grasses flower according to daylight hours.

Some begin to flower when day/night hours are equal, and others when daylight exceeds darkness.

Weed pollen is not as significant in South Africa as it is in North America and Europe, where the major weed, ragweed, is found.

However, to date, large areas of South Africa have not been monitored, so it is possible that there are weeds in some areas that do produce comparable high weed pollen counts.

Not all pollen triggers symptoms of seasonal allergy. It is the wind pollinated plants that are allergenic as they release large numbers of pollen grains into the atmosphere.

Brightly coloured flowers and flowering trees are usually insect pollinated and the pollen from these plants seldom triggers allergic reactions – pollen counts from insect pollinated plants found in the atmosphere are low.

There are numerous websites that forecast pollen and fungal spore levels in the air in South African cities, but the data does not necessarily apply to SA and may be misleading.

Many of these websites make inaccurate predictions, or include plants like ragweed that are not found in abundance in South Africa, and that have not so far been seen in Cape Town pollen counts.

The Allergy Foundation of South Africa supports the call for national pollen monitoring, and also provides allergy sufferers with updated pollen information, at www.allergyfoundation.co.za

For more information on pollen allergy, see www.allergyfoundation.co.za/patient-information/en/allergens/pollen-allergy/

If you wish to support this initiative, contact Professor Jonny Peter at Jonny.Peter@uct.ac.za