Rise of the Allergens and Allergies
The realm of allergies was largely unknown and
unexplored until the beginning of the twentieth century, but over time we
have learned a great deal about them. In the past twenty years allergic
diseases have been diagnosed with increasing frequency. That means more
people sneezing, wheezing, and rubbing itchy eyes.
the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published eye-opening
findings: 58% of Americans are allergic to at least one airborne allergen.
Airborne allergens aren’t found only in dirty, polluted areas. Dust mites
can be found in your bed, your carpet, floating around in the air, and many
other places inside your own home.
Dr. Jonathan Corren points out in 100 Questions & Answers about Allergies,
that 3% of Americans were living with asthma in 1990, while now the number
is all the way up to 7%. During the same period, skin-based allergies have
risen from 5% to 8%, and nasal allergies have skyrocketed from 10% to 20%.
Similar increases are taking place throughout the developed world. The big
question of course is – why?
The Hygiene Hypothesis
When an infant’s immune system is still developing it can’t tell the
difference between hazardous substances and benign ones. The best way for it
to learn at this stage is through allergic reactions. People are born into
and grow up in much cleaner environments these days than they did in the
past. Some people think that when children aren’t exposed to enough dirt and
bacteria early on, their immune systems will not develop correctly. This is
the essence of the “hygiene hypothesis.” Studies have shown that kids in
daycares, places known for germ spreading, have fewer allergies than those
raised at home with less contact with other children. None of this proves
the hygiene hypothesis to be true, but it all makes for a compelling
Many people believe that the rising temperatures and levels of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere could be directly contributing to the allergy
increase. A study conducted in 2005 found that plants have been flowering
earlier in the year, and that pollen production is on the rise. Another
study released just last year confirmed that ragweed, many people’s nemesis
during the fall months, now sheds pollen for up to a month longer than it
did in 1995 in many parts of the United States.
The main allergy culprit during the spring is tree pollen. As spring
temperatures increase, so too does the amount of pollen that trees produce.
Poison ivy benefits greatly from high carbon dioxide levels, and that is bad
news for the roughly 80% of us who develop a horrible skin rash upon coming
into contact with the plant. Carbon dioxide not only boosts the plant’s
growth, but also causes it to produce a more allergenic strain of urushiol,
the oily substance that causes the rash.
As factories ramp up production they release smoke into the air. People in
congested cities like Los Angeles might face greater exposure to smog and
other types of air pollution. This could be exacerbating people’s allergies,
especially asthma. Tobacco smoke is probably the worst air pollutant, and it
has been found to promote both allergy and asthma symptoms. Diesel fumes are
also thought to promote allergies, while other outdoor air pollutants act
more as irritants that can aggravate the symptoms of allergy and asthma.
The increase in allergy diagnoses may simply mean that there is a greater
level of awareness about allergies than there was in the past. More people
are going to allergists about their symptoms. More doctors are considering
allergies when patients come to them with obvious symptoms. Certain
conditions used to be treated without actually understanding the allergic
reaction taking place. In the past, a patient may have been told she had dry
skin, while today that same person is diagnosed with eczema.
Instead of suffering in silence, people are now seeking out ways to help
control their allergies. Doctors have improved their methods of testing for
allergies, and there are many options for people who find out they have
them. Drugs aren’t the only answer anymore. People are steering clear of
dust mites and other allergens by encasing their mattresses, using
sprays, washing their clothes with special detergents, putting air purifiers
in their bedrooms, and even using a solution for their pets.
There probably isn’t just one all encompassing reason to explain why the
number of people with allergies is growing so rapidly. It is more likely
that the above factors as well as others are all contributing in some way.
We may never know the real reason for this allergy increase because funding
usually goes towards solving the problem rather than finding out what’s
causing it. If you are one of the many people suffering with allergies,
however, then you definitely want to find out exactly what’s causing your
symptoms. Once you do that it will be much easier to find the relief that
you have been seeking. Plenty of allergy medications are available today,
but it may be more logical to take preventative measures rather than waiting
for symptoms to come about and then treating them.
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