“There’s no question that allergies are increasing throughout the industrial world,” says Dr. Raymond Slavin of the St. Louis University School of Medicine’s Allergy & Immunology Division.
”And despite what people say, it doesn’t have anything to do with air pollution. In fact, the air is cleaner now than it was 40 years ago. One of the most intriguing explanations for the dramatic rise in allergies is the hygiene hypothesis, and briefly that suggests the more infections you have as a child, the less chance you have of developing allergies and asthma when you’re older.”
An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from hay fever.
It all has to do with lymphocytes, or more specifically, the T Helper lymphocyte (TH1).
Infections increase TH1 cell activity in your body, which in turn produces substances such as gamma interferon that decrease the allergic response. Without this defensive mechanism in place, people fall victim to allergens such as pollen, dust mites and mold.
Increased susceptibility to asthma is among the more worrisome consequences of adult-onset allergies.
“Allergy can be a cause of asthma,” cautions Dr. Slavin. “A person needs two things to be allergic. Firstly, they need to have a genetic predisposition to allergies, and secondly, they need to be exposed to allergens. If you’ve never had a cat, for example, you may not manifest allergy or asthma until you acquire one when you’re 50 years old. A move to another part of the country may also result in wheezing. You could settle in a place where there are more allergens in the air.”
Research appears to confirm these findings. A study conducted by Dr. Maritta S. Jaakkola, senior clinical lecturer at the Institute of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Birmingham in England, suggests that the risk of asthma is significantly higher in those with allergies to common air allergens such as birch, ragweed and timothy grass.
Molds and dust mites were also a primary source of allergy-induced asthma. The clinical implications of her findings are sobering, particularly for pet owners.
“The results suggest that a considerable fraction of asthma developing in adulthood could be prevented by measures that reduce allergies,” says Dr. Jaakkola. “Aim to reduce or completely avoid sources of allergens. These include pets and other domestic animals, plus pests, mites and molds related to indoor dampness. Any indoor dampness or mold problems detected at homes or in workplaces should be repaired promptly. To prevent such problems in the first place, attention should be paid to good ventilation. People should also be aware that keeping pets could increase the risk of asthma in adults. It’s also important to eradicate any household pests as soon as possible.”
In addition to asthma, many allergy sufferers experience chronic ear and sinus infections, which can produce serious long-term consequences. Drug therapy and allergy shots are a part of prescribed therapy for sufferers.
Any weakness in the immune system is sure to reveal itself given the overwhelming number of allergens in the environment. Here are the ones most likely to elicit a reaction:
- Dust mites
- Pet dander