Prevention: Are Allergy Forecasts Completely Bogus?

By KAREN CICEROFEBRUARY 27, 2015Write a comment

When I was packing for a trip to Florida a couple of weeks ago, I debated whether I should toss in allergy meds along with my sunscreen. Tree pollen is my nose's nemesis, and I didn't want to be sneezy at the Disney parks (after all, they already have a dwarf for that). So I hit the web, and lo and behold, I found three very different pollen allergy forecasts for the same exact dates.

On pollen.com, it didn't look good:

But, then again, The Weather Channel showed that the tree allergy forecast was "low" over the entire state of Florida:

And, adding to my confusion, this forecast from accuweather.com pegged the tree pollen level at "0."

How could three reputable websites offer such conflicting information? I was completely confused, and I'm guessing you are, too.

I reached out to allergy experts and here's what they had to say: "There's no standard model for pollen predictions," explains Leonard Bielory, MD, an allergist in Springfield, New Jersey. Predictions are usually based on a number of factors, such as normal seasonal patterns, past pollen counts, and approaching weather systems, but there's no one method or equation with a solid track record for forecasting. "In fact, they're less accurate than predicting the weather," adds Stanley Fineman, MD, past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI)

Yikes. And there's even data to back up that bold statement: A few years ago, a study presented at the ACAAI's annual meeting by a researcher from the University of North Dakota Medical School compared predictions from two forecasting sites to actual counts taken on the days in question and found that the sites and counts didn't match up. The report deemed allergy forecasting unreliable.

The best alternative for allergy sufferers: Check out data-driven reports from one of the National Allergy Bureau's pollen counting stations. There are more than 65 of them scattered across the U.S. and many update their counts daily, usually displaying those from the previous day (so for instance, if you check on Thursday morning, the count will be based on the pollen in the air on Wednesday, which is a more accurate way to predict these things than what the other sites are using). Check here to see if there's a station in your area.

If you don't live near one of the NAB stations, some local allergists also take counts and post them on their websites or Twitter. Because the information from the NAB and allergists are actual recent counts of the pollen in the air, they're generally more reliable. Bielory has gone one better, putting his New Jersey counts into an app that allows users to compare their symptoms to the pollen level. "I'm refining a model that might in the next couple of years enable allergists to predict pollen counts," he says.

Until that magical day comes, keep in mind that pollen levels tend to decrease after a rainstorm and increase on dry, windy days. And maybe keep an emergency stash of allergy meds on hand.

MORE: Natural Seasonal Allergy Relief 

FILED UNDER: ALLERGIES