(Vienna, 10 March 2016) This year, the pollen situation for allergy sufferers promises to be erratic, because pollen dispersal times will vary due to unsettled temperatures. Ash is already releasing its pollen earlier than usual and birch could also flower early. From the end of March, it will release more pollen into the atmosphere than in the previous year. Treatment should also start early to prevent troublesome asthma or the development of further allergies. On Thursday, at a press conference given by the Austrian Pollen Monitoring Service at MedUni Vienna in association with the information platform IGAV (Special interest group for allergen prevention), allergy experts presented a forecast of this year’s pollen season and explained how an allergy can be diagnosed and treated.
According to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, this winter was the second warmest on record in nearly 250 years. “Alternating hot and cold fronts have affected the pollen season and given us an extremely multi-faceted spring," explains Katharina Bastl of the Austrian Pollen Monitoring Service at MedUni Vienna. Because of the mild winter, alder and hazel have started to flower even earlier than usual but the cold snaps have repeatedly delayed the start of the season. "On top of that, the previously disregarded Moreton Bay alder (alnus spaethii) is extending the pollen season. Because of its Siberian genes, it flowers up to two months before related indigenous species and therefore starts to cause problems for allergy sufferers from mid December onwards. Because it is related to hazel and birch, people who are allergic to the latter might also start to have problems at this early stage. Wherever Moreton Bay alder is widespread, the pollen-free period is reduced to only two months a year."
The next wave of pollen arrives with the ash trees, some of which are already starting to flower in particularly favourable locations. "But we do not expect an explosive start to the season, because the weather is far too unsettled for that," says Bastl. This year, even birch trees will start to flower slightly earlier. Depending upon the weather over the next few weeks, allergy sufferers must expect the first pollen loadings from the middle/end of March onwards. This year, the pollen count will be significantly above average. However, how allergy sufferers respond will depend upon how the season starts and progresses. "If it gets warmer gradually, the season will start early but will be moderate," explains Bastl. "However, if we continue to experience huge temperature variations, the release of pollen will start very suddenly or the pollen count will increase erratically over the pollen dispersal period but the start will be delayed. However, in this case, the impact on sufferers will be much greater than if the pollen count were to increase gradually."
Pollen Monitoring Service promotes early diagnosis
The Austrian Pollen Warning Service now has many successful years behind it. Currently, around two million people a year avail themselves of the free service at www.pollenwarndienst.at, the Pollen App is used by more than 240,000 allergy sufferers during the pollen season and the Service's Facebook page has more than 7,000 fans. The internationally recognised research Institute also has solutions on hand for early diagnosis, which is so important in the case of allergies. "On average it takes between eight and nine years for an allergy sufferer to obtain an expert diagnosis and appropriate treatment. That is definitely too long," says Service Head, Uwe E. Berger. If symptoms such as itchy eyes, runny or blocked nose and attacks of sneezing do not get better after a week and occur at the same time every year, it is worth investigating. "In order to help allergy sufferers to decide whether or not to go to their doctor, we have incorporated a clinically tested self-test in our app and on the website." The questionnaire reliably indicates the probability of an allergic respiratory tract disorder and is easy to complete. A practical search function is also available to help sufferers find a specialist.
"These services are intended to help shorten the time it takes from the onset of problems to finding effective treatment and to prevent asthmatic illnesses," says Berger. The service has now been extended to include forecast maps on the popular app, to link weather forecasts with pollen count forecasts and to provide a graphic display of pollen counts.
We know: allergies are common. We also know: allergies are underestimated. This is a fatal mistake, because an allergic reaction can spread to the lungs and new allergies can develop. This means that patients are confronted with their troublesome symptoms not only during the pollen season but the whole year round. "The earlier an allergy is diagnosed, the better it can be treated to prevent worsening of the problems,” says Erika Jensen-Jarolim of the Institute for Pathophysiology and Allergy Research at MedUni Vienna. "Modern methods, based on the molecular level, are becoming increasingly important. These enable us to identify exactly which protein components in an allergen are responsible for causing the allergy." With this knowledge, it is possible to detect sensitisation at a very early stage, thereby increasing the accuracy of diagnosis and making the therapy even more effective. Jensen-Jarolim: "The allergen microchip with over 100 allergen molecules is particularly accurate, hardly stressful to patients and is the screening method best suited to identifying pollen allergies. However, the test cannot be done everywhere, because it requires specialist knowledge to interpret the extensive results."
There are essentially three key elements in treating a respiratory tract allergy: Avoiding allergy triggers, relieving symptoms with anti-allergenic medicines and killing the cause of the allergy using its own weapon, as it were – with pollen allergens, in the case of a pollen allergy. The earlier this is done, the more effectively the allergy can be treated.
Avoiding allergens is at the heart of the treatment. "By using comprehensive and consistent measures such as pollen filters, for example, sufferers can noticeably and consistently restrict their allergenic burden," explains Reinhart Jarisch, Deputy Head of the Floridsdorf Allergy Center (FAZ). The Austrian Pollen Monitoring Service at MedUni Vienna helps people to avoid pollen as much as possible. Tried and tested drugs such as antihistamines and cortisone are available for symptomatic treatment. Jarisch: "Since a lot of pollen gets trapped in the nose, symptoms can often be experienced there. For this reason, allergy sufferers predominantly use nasal sprays alongside antihistamine tablets. Nowadays, both active agents are available in a combination preparation.
The third element of treatment is Specific ImmunoTherapy (SIT). This involves giving a sufferer the allergens responsible for their problems over a period of approximately three years, in the form of sprays, drops or tablets. "The dose is gradually increased, bringing about a habituation effect. The patient's immune system learns to tolerate the allergy triggers once again," explains Jarisch. It has been clearly demonstrated that a course of SIT can prevent asthma in adults. A recent study conducted with more than 800 children has shown for the first time that it has a preventive effect in childhood asthma as well.
[in German:] Buchpräsentation „Pollen & Allergie“ am 22. März
Die AutorInnen Uwe Berger und Katharina Bastl vom Pollenwarndienst der MedUni Wien präsentieren das in Kooperation mit dem Manz Verlag erschienene Buch "Pollen & Allergie". Dieses Buch erleichtert Betroffenen und deren Umfeld den Alltag mit der Pollenallergie und begleitet sie mit Hintergrundwissen und Tipps durch die Pollensaison. Ort: Buchhandlung Thalia, Mariahilfer Straße 99, 1060 Wien, 19 bis 20 Uhr. Der Eintritt ist frei.