Pollen counts: What are they good for?

Air Sampler with San Francisco city in the background.

One of my biggest struggles as an allergy sufferer had been figuring out when and how much medicine to take. Taking medication too much or too often resulted in nasty side effects and dependencies. Not taking enough medication, on the other hand, resulted in horrible debilitating symptoms. Which then required a much stronger dose of medicine resulting in even worse side effects.

I am glad to share that by having access to accurate local pollen reports for San Francisco Bay Area, I have learned to mitigate this problem significantly! I have reduced my medicine intake by 60% in the past twelve months. During the same period, I also have had allergies in full control and never had a bad day.

Until a cure is found, I believe this is the best outcome an allergy sufferer can hope for: A significant reduction in both the medicine and the symptoms.

This is how I do it:

Going medication free when allergens are absent

By knowing that offending pollens are in low counts or absent, I go off medication completely during the months of January, June, July, November, and December. That’s five months of complete freedom from medication!

Caution: Each individual would have to find her own medicine free days. For example, someone allergic to Cedar would not be able to go medicine free in January. Or, someone allergic to Grass, Weeds, or Oaks may not be able go medicine free in June or July.

Changing  to an aggressive treatment plan only when necessary

I am highly sensitive to Olive pollen. By observing the local pollen counts in Burlingame, I know that Olive blooms during the month of May.

Anti-histamines do not provide me enough protection against Olive. On my doctor’s advice, I switch to a nasal spray at the beginning of the month and ride out the Olive season without any problems.

Nasal sprays have bad side effects for me, such as nose bleeds and interference with adrenal functions. In the past, my doctor had advised me to take Nasal Spray year-round. And I did. And side effects were often worse than the allergies themselves. But now with the awareness of pollen in the air, I go on nasal sprays only for one month when it’s absolutely necessary. Big win, if you ask me!

Managing outdoor activities

I love golf! About four years ago, I had to quit playing golf after a few bad episodes of allergies. I hate allergies!

However, just last year, equipped with my new-found knowledge of local pollen, I have returned to enjoying the outdoors. Now when a round of golf or a hike up the Twin Peaks call my name, I answer!

That said, I still do not play golf or indulge in the outdoors during the months of May (Olive) and September (Chinese Elm). The risk of having a bad day is just too high during these months. But during the rest of the year, I enjoy the outdoors to my heart’s content. As I mentioned earlier, there are at least five months in the year when I am not impacted by allergies. So not only do I enjoy the outdoors during these months, I do so medicine-free! In the other months, such as February or March, the anti-histamines provide enough protection to let me go out and play.

Caution: It is of no use to avoid the outdoors when the same pollen laden air is coming inside your home from windows and doors. In fact, I would argue that indoor air can be more hazardous than outdoor. At least the weather elements such as wind and rain clean out the allergens from the outdoors. But once the allergens get indoors, they hang around for many months, even years. The subject of indoor air quality requires a chapter of its own, but suffice to mention that you would need air conditioning or air purifiers that use HEPA filtration, in conjunction with regular cleaning, to create a safe indoor sanctuary to escape from the outdoors.

Same caution applies to your office space and even your car.

Planning Travel

This one seems obvious but is worth a quick mention. Before any travel, I check the pollen counts in the destination city. It helps me evaluate what kind of activities I can do and which medicine I need.

It’s possible that your destination city does not have reliable allergy forecasts available. In that case, it is always better to err on the side of caution and take your entire arsenal of medicine with you.

At Allerma, we do our best to provide accurate and meaningful pollen reports for San Francisco Bay Area. We do regular air sampling as well as observe the local trees and plants to prepare our reports. Please read our about us page to learn about our mission. AAAAI.org is another good source for reliable pollen counts.

Verifying what you are allergic to

You can only manage your allergies well if you know what you are allergic to.  Doctors often prescribe a skin prick tests for patients to diagnose their sensitization to various allergens. These tests, however, do not produce entirely reliable results. Case in point, during a recent visit to the doctor, I was tested for dust mites on both my arms. I tested positive in my left arm and negative on my right arm.

I also tested negative for Elm pollen in the same panel even though in my older tests, I had tested positive. It is only by cross-referencing my symptoms with the local pollen count, I was able to confirm that I am actually allergic to Elm.

Furthermore, the test panels are limited to a small number of the most common allergens. It is entirely possible that you may be allergic to something that is not even on the test panel. One should use the skin prick test only as a starting point. Afterward by maintaining a diary of symptoms and local pollen counts, one should confirm their allergies to various allergens in the local air.

Knowing accurately what you are allergic to is also important if you choose to pursue  immunotherapy.  In this form of therapy, you are injected with small doses of the offending allergens to help you build tolerance for them. If due to a false negative, the injection serum made for you is missing the offending allergen, then the treatment is bound to fail. Immunotherapy can take up to five years to be effective. Therefore, before you embark on such an arduous treatment, it would be wise to verify skin test results by cross referencing your symptoms with the local pollen counts.


Local pollen reports can help you better manage your allergies. You can significantly reduce both your symptoms as well as the side effects of the medicine. It can also play an important role in confirming what you are allergic to and whether or not your treatment is working.

Sudhir Setia

Sudhir is certified by the National Allergy Bureau (NAB) as a pollen counter and identifier. He has been living with Hay Fever for nearly 30 years and studies allergens at his aerobiology lab.

Recent Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This