Pollen count apps for smartphones are nothing to sneeze at

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2013 - 2:12 PM

Armed with phones, people can get help in managing seasonal allergies.

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Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Kate O’Reilly’s spring allergy survival kit includes the usual stuff — nasal sprays, allergy pills and a box of tissues. This season, she’s added a new weapon to her line of defense: an app on her smartphone.

After waking up one recent morning with a stuffy nose and stinging eyes, she downloaded the WebMD Allergy app, which tracks pollen levels in the air.

“If there’s a high level, I want to wake up knowing that,” said O’Reilly, of Minneapolis.

The prolonged winter delayed the start of allergy season, which typically begins in March. While that gave allergy sufferers some relief, local allergists say their offices now are bustling as allergy season kicks into high gear.

Much like the trees and flowers causing problems for some Minnesotans, allergy apps are just starting to bloom. Many of them have been developed in the last year, said social media expert Christopher Lower, who contends that the new apps are a spinoff of the wildly popular weather apps.

These apps are beginning to change the way some people manage their seasonal allergies, which afflict up to 25 percent of the population. But some allergists are skeptical about the apps’ usefulness.

Common features of the often-free allergy apps include a daily forecast of the pollen levels in your area and a description of the predominant allergens in the air — tree pollen, grass, mold and ragweed, to name a few.

Many apps also allow users to log their symptoms and medications. For example, Zyrtec makes an AllergyCast app with a “Today I feel” dial that allows users to choose from “ugh” to “great.” It also features a “products” tab that lists various medications, made by Zyrtec, of course.

Doctors divided

Dr. Ron Reilkoff, a pulmonologist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, said he sees benefits in using apps to measure air quality.

“All these allergies depend on the environment,” he said, “so if you can be forewarned and be prepared that it’s going to be a bad day ... I think it’s beneficial.”

Dr. Julia Montejo, an allergist with Fairview Clinics, agrees. She said the apps can be particularly helpful for people who don’t recognize their symptoms.

“I think they’re useful if they can help guide your therapy,” she said. “For some people, if they have runny noses and sneezes, and they’re wondering if they have a cold or an allergy, they can probably figure out that it’s an allergy if they see pollen counts. So then they’ll say, ‘Oh, today is a Claritin day, not a Sudafed day.’ ”

Catie Kennedy of Minneapolis has been using an allergy app for several months. “I find it incredibly useful,” she said. “I’d rather know what I’m up against than not.”

Her app sends her special alerts when pollen levels are especially high. “I take an allergy pill every day as soon as I start getting these alerts,” she said.

But not everyone is so eager to welcome the apps. At the Allina Medical Clinic in Woodbury, Dr. Pramod Kelkar said that many factors beside pollen levels influence allergies.

“It’s kind of intellectually satisfying to look at the apps and look at the pollen count,” he said, but, “people should look at their body and their symptoms rather than looking at the apps.”

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