Gesundheit! Smartphone apps for allergies gain popularity

(MINNEAPOLIS) STAR TRIBUNEMay 27, 2013 

Kate O'Reilly's spring survival kit includes the usual stuff: nasal sprays, allergy pills, antihistamines and a few boxes of tissues. This season, she's added a new weapon to her line of defense, and it's on her phone.

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, who lives in Minneapolis.

Allergy apps are just starting to bloom. Many of them have been developed in the past 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.

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.

"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," Montejo said. "So then they'll say, 'Oh, today is a Claritin day, not a Sudafed day.' "

But not everyone is so eager to welcome the allergy apps. At the Allina Medical Clinic in Woodbury, Minn., Dr. Pramod Kelkar said that many factors other than 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."

Dr. Philip Halverson questioned the tool's usefulness as well. "I wonder about the clinical utility of pollen counts," he said. People with allergies who are seeing doctors already are treating their symptoms. "If it's a seasonal allergy, we typically have a plan," he said. "So, really, the treatment is pretty much symptom-based."

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