Why Do So Many People Have Allergies These Days?

by Jason Sibert

In years past, it was the pasty-faced, sickly kid in class that had all the allergies. Today it seems everyone is allergic to something – peanut butter, animals, pollen, dust, grass, and even the air we breathe.

Why are allergies on the increase in the United States?
Approximately 54 percent of the population suffers from some form of allergy, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. This represents a doubling according to the numbers compiled in a 1976 to 1980 study from the National Institutes of Health. In addition, allergies cost our health care system $18 billion annually, said the Allergy Relief and Learning Center.

While the scientific community is in agreement that greenhouse gas pollution is warming the climate, might this form of pollution affect human health in ways we rarely acknowledge? Washington University Professor of Medicine H. James Wedner said the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could increase the number of people susceptible to allergies. Studies have shown that pollen, which often induces an allergic reaction, is becoming more prominent as carbon dioxide levels increase, Wedner added.

Allergies are a bodily reaction to any number of things in nature that the immune system perceives to be toxic. When humans develop any type of allergy, pollen, dust mites, cats, molds, or food, the immune system acts as if the allergen is dangerous, even though it is not. The body releases chemicals to defend itself against the invader and these chemicals trigger allergic symptoms. The symptoms, which include impaired breathing, cramps, sneezing, and vomiting, vary depending on the allergy.

Wedner said the cause of allergies is unknown. However, allergy cases are on the increase not only in the US but also around the world, he added. Although there isn’t a single concrete scientific explanation as to why, the hygiene hypothesis states that the cleanliness of industrial societies is causing an increase in allergic reactions. Adherents of the hypothesis feel that the lack of exposure to microorganisms and parasites increases the immune systems susceptibility to allergenic agents.

Local ecology can also play a role in the prevalence of allergies. St. Louis is among the top 50 worst cities in the United States for allergies, according to a ranking from the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, as it ranked 29th in the country for spring allergies. Wedner said St. Louis ranks so high in numerous studies because of the number of trees, humidity, mites, cats, grasses, cockroaches, and weeds.

People can develop an allergic reaction at any time in their lives, said Wedner. The allergy doctor also said he’s treated patients who develop allergies when they’re growing up and some who don’t start to have problems until they’re in their 80’s. One can lose their sensitivity to a particular allergy at any time for no apparent reason, though it is rare.
The spring, summer, and fall represent a peak time for allergies because plants pollenate in order to reproduce. Trees pollenate in the early spring, grass pollenates in the late spring, and ragweed pollenates in the fall. This year’s mild winter led to a longer pollination season for trees, Wedner said.

Animal borne allergies are the most common form of allergies in our country, according to Wedner. He also said the two most common animal borne allergies are dust mites and cats. Approximately 50 percent of the country has a pet and 10 percent of the population may be allergic to pets, according to information provided by the ACAAI.

Regardless of the cause, one can create an environment that fights the intrusion of allergies. Wedner said one can protect themselves from allergies by keeping their house dry, as it decreases intrusions by mold and dust mites and by washing bed cloths because it decreases the chance they will attract dust mites. Wedner also said allergy physicians use medications to modify the immune systems of allergy patients, a process called immunotherapy. The medication, injected into the patient’s blood stream through shots, controls the allergy symptoms. The shots include a small portion of the substance that’s causing the allergic reaction. This increases the tolerance of the patient’s natural resistance for fighting the substance so the immune system can fight it naturally.

Several organizations provide services and information for those who suffer from allergies. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation is the leading patient organization for people with asthma and allergies, according to its website. The St. Louis Chapter of the AAF provides lifesaving equipment and educational and emotional support for children suffering from asthma and allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation’s website. The chapter can be contacted at aafa@aafastl.org. In addition, Pollen.com offers four day allergy news and forecasts for all areas of the country. You can also get information from the American Lung Association of Missouri at www.lungusa2.org/missouri.