allergy hay fever

Analysing the air we breathe: an effort to understand the origins of hay fever

An article published in the University of Melbourne’s scientific journal, Pursuit, dove deep into the topic – what’s in the air we breathe? 

The primary reason behind this article was to improve the understanding of the link between pollen and allergies.

Melbourne Pollen, a service run by the University of Melbourne, has been sharing forecasts on the level of different types of pollen in Melbourne’s air for more than 40 years. 

It’s important to note that hay fever and asthma aren’t allergic to the pollen itself, but to “extremely small molecules called allergens that are part of the pollen grain”. 

These allergens stimulate certain types of immune cells in the body, and it’s the histamine response of these cells that trigger symptoms of hay fever and asthma.

For example, if your nose is affected by the air you breathe, histamines prompt it to make more mucus. Resulting in a runny or stuffy nose which can stimulate sneezes. The mucus can also block your throat and make you cough. 

Allergen vs Pollen

During the last year, Melbourne Pollen has been investigating data to see how much of a particular grass pollen allergen called the group V allergen (pronounced group five allergen) is in the air, and whether the amount of this allergen stays the same or changes over the season.

As per the article “Currently, we think of every grass pollen grain we see as highly allergenic. But maybe that’s not right and the potency of grass pollen as a source of allergens like the group V allergen changes over the season.”

Technical advances have allowed researchers to process and measure lots of samples simultaneously, which means they will soon be able to look at the amount of allergen present in the air every day during the season. Not just the amount of pollen. 

What’s in the air we breathe?

When the researchers examined filters that had been collecting material in Melbourne’s air for a week, a fair amount of foreign matter was found. The infamous pollen grains were the easiest to spot with a diameter of about 30 to 50 micrometres (0.03 to 0.05 millimetres). For comparison, a strand of human hair is between 10 and 50 micrometres thick.

A pollen grain as seen with a scanning electron microscope. Image source: 

An abundance of sharp-edged, angular-looking structures, as well as rods, fibres and shards, were also spotted. They could be inorganic materials like soil or sand or salts from ocean spray that has been carried inland via wind.

Some particles that measured at only 10s of nanometres across (one-millionth of a millimetre), a thousand times smaller than human hair, were also found.

While challenging to identify due to their size, scientists speculated that they could be pollutants like smoke from car exhaust or perhaps even microplastics. But to identify what these very small particles are made from and to understand where they may have come from, higher-end instruments are needed. 

To capture the current images, high-performance microscopes that use a combination of intense lighting with very high-quality glass lenses were used.

It’s exciting to see science slowly uncover the mysteries of the air we breathe. These are important steps towards further understanding the environment’s impact on our health. Knowing how much allergen is in the air during the peak allergy months will help provide better information about when hay fever symptoms might be bad and enable patients to take action involving both prevention and cure. 

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates.

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