More Serious Than Sneezing? High Pollen Linked to Death
April 27, 2000 -- If you have seasonal allergies or know someone who does,
you know the misery associated with a high pollen count: sneezing, itchy eyes,
and increased asthma problems. Even if you felt like dying, you probably
wouldn't think of these pollen-heavy days as deadly.
Think again, say Dutch investigators who found more death due to heart
disease and certain respiratory conditions on days with high pollen counts.
"Pollen is a well-known trigger of allergies, especially hay fever and
asthma," the authors write. "However, deaths related to these
conditions are extremely rare, and cannot account for the associations seen in
this study." They likened the association to the one between air pollution
and death, noting that a 5% to 10% increase in death is seen on high-pollution
days. The new study was published in the journal The Lancet.
"The association is a bit like the link between [death] and very warm or
very cold weather, which are also known to increase [death]," lead author
Bert Brunekreef, PhD, tells WebMD. "Similar findings have been reported
repeatedly for air pollution." Brunekreef is an epidemiologist in the
The authors looked for relationships between pollen counts and death due to
heart disease, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a
chronic lung disease. They obtained statistics for the total number of daily
deaths from the Netherlands' Central Bureau of Statistics over an eight-year
period. The investigators then related these statistics to corresponding data
for airborne pollen concentrations.
During this period, there was an average of more than 330 deaths per day. Of
these, there was an average of about 140 deaths per day due to cardiovascular
disease, 16 for COPD, and 10 for pneumonia.
When the researchers looked at the number and rate of deaths and the amount
of Poacae, a common pollen found in the Netherlands, they found that the
days with the highest pollen counts were associated with an increase of about
6% in death from heart disease, 15% in death from COPD, and 17% in death from
The authors write that, in other research, certain indicators of allergies
are linked to increased death due to heart disease and COPD, and that their
study seems to support pollen's contribution to the death rate. They caution,
though, that their findings should be replicated in other studies before this
link can be confirmed.
People with COPD should be less worried about the pollen outdoors than they
are about the smoke indoors, according to a respiratory disease expert. "We
have no proof that any of the people who died were allergic. The vast majority
of patients with COPD, for example, do not have allergies," Eric Schenkel,
MD, tells WebMD.
In severe allergic reactions, the body secretes histamine, a compound that
can have an effect on the heart. In severe asthma, lack of oxygen can also
cause heart rhythm problems, he says.
"There's no evidence whatsoever that inhalation of pollution causes
cardiac problems, though." Schenkel is an allergist who focuses on COPD and
is the director of Valley Clinical Research Center in Easton, Pa. He is also a
clinical assistant professor of medicine at MCP/Hahnemann University School of
Medicine in Philadelphia.
The study was funded by the Ministry of the Environment in the