Sneezing person

The last time you weren’t feeling well, did you turn to Google for answers?

If you had pollen allergies, you wouldn’t be alone. Past research has shown that when pollen is in the air and humans are reacting to it, they google the term “pollen” more frequently. And Fiona Lo, an atmospheric science Ph.D. student at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, hopes these searches could be a new asset for researchers studying environmental health and allergies.

“We’ve shown here that we can use Google Trends to estimate the start of the pollen season,” Lo said in a talk at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018. Lo believes these underutilized data could fill in spatial and temporal gaps in nationwide pollen concentration counts.

Patchy Data

“Part of the problem is that we have really poor resolution for pollen data.”

Lo suffers from pollen allergies and grew frustrated with the information available. “I discovered that, looking at pollen reports and forecasts, often my symptoms don’t match up,” Lo told Eos. “Part of the problem is that we have really poor resolution for pollen data.”

For example, when you hear of pollen counts on the news, there’s a high chance those data come from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. The professional society aggregates pollen count from individual allergy clinics that painstakingly tally pollen grains under a microscope to calculate pollen concentration in the air. The clinics, which are sprinkled throughout the United States, voluntarily give their data, and the society makes them public in their database called the National Allergy Bureau. But the coverage is thin, said Lo.

“Really, the data is not very good,” Lo said. “Sometimes they don’t collect on weekends, and a lot of times they don’t collect over the winter.” To make matters worse, the western half of the United States is sparsely covered.

When Pollen Is Trending

Google Trends tracks searches by state, metropolitan area, and city. The data are available to anyone and can even be accessed in real time to show what areas are searching for at this very instant.

For 12 of the 14 cities she analyzed, her method predicted the start of allergy season within 1 week.

Lo compared searches for the word “pollen” with the available NAB data sets in 14 cities across the United States. “You can see a really good correlation between the Google data and the pollen data,” she explained. For 12 of the 14 cities she analyzed, her method predicted the start of allergy season within 1 week. She found that cities with larger populations, at least more than 2 million, had the best match.

Because allergy medications can take several weeks to take effect, said Lo, knowing the start of allergy season as soon as it hits can help people and their doctors treat symptoms early. Her next step is to work with officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to relate Google Trends data to health outcomes to ensure a correlation exists.

Filling the Gaps

If the metric proves useful, Jeremy Hess, an associate professor of medicine at UW and doctoral adviser to Lo, said that it could open up new ways for environmental health researchers to ask questions. “We could look at a larger suite of trends related to Google Search for pollen and temperature trends over time, and other things,” he said.

James Crooks, an environmental epidemiologist at National Jewish Health Hospital in Denver, Colo., attended the talk and said that he hopes to use Google Trends to fill in holes in his data set when allergy clinics aren’t taking data.

“People get allergies on weekends too,” Crooks told Eos. “I was really glad to see someone making an effort to plug those holes.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jenessaduncombe), News Writing and Production Intern


Duncombe, J. (2018), Google Trends could help scientists track allergy season, Eos, 99, Published on 13 December 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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