If you have allergies, you’ve probably felt them turn you into a sneezing, wheezing, runny-nosed, puffy-eyed mess in the heart of allergy season. Between 20 and 25 percent of Americans have allergies. So, how’d you get so “lucky” to be among this distinguished minority? In this article, we’ll take a look at some risk factors that make some people more disposed to allergies and asthma than others.
• Genetics. If you have a family history of allergies, you are what’s known as “atopic,” or prone to allergies. The strongest risk factor for allergies is heredity. Being atopic means that your body is more likely to perceive harmless allergens in the environment as dangerous threats and overreact to them by producing IgE antibodies. These antibodies trigger cells in the body to release chemicals, which lead to allergic reactions in the nose, lungs, throat, and skin.
As a general rule, if one of your parents has allergies, you have a 50% chance of inheriting allergies. Your risk goes up to 75% if both parents have allergies.
• Gender. Tying into the genetics of allergy, an Isle of Wight (IOW) Birth Cohort Study showed that gender plays into the equation. The study suggested that a child’s risk of inheriting allergies grows if a parent of the same gender suffers from allergies.
• Smoke exposure. Children born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy, or those who are exposed to second-hand smoke in infancy, have a greater risk of developing allergies and asthma.
• Eczema (atopic dermatitis). There is a strong link between eczema and a range of allergic conditions—including food allergy. According to the National Eczema Association, 30% of people with eczema develop a food allergy. There is also a strong correlation between eczema and asthma. Research from the Washington University School of Medicine showed that 50 to 70% of children with severe eczema also develop asthma (as compared to the 9% of children and 7% of adults who have asthma in the general population).
Eczema is often the first symptom in what is referred to as the atopic march. In classic cases of this progression, children (or even babies) will develop eczema, then progress to food allergy, asthma, and allergic rhinitis.
So what connects eczema to all of these allergic disorders? The Washington University study zeroed in on a substance secreted by compromised skin. This substance can enter the body and wreak havoc, causing cells to secrete chemicals that trigger asthma, hay fever, and allergic reactions to food proteins. On a happy note, the scientists involved in this study found that if you can desensitize patients to allergies early on, you can slow (or stop) the progression of the atopic march.
• Limited exposure to germs. Newborns who are exposed to household germs appear to have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies. This ties into the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that as we become cleaner, our immune systems have less practice recognizing harmful germs. As such, they are more likely to misconstrue a benign allergen as a harmful germ and attack it with a barrage of chemicals, which leads to allergy symptoms.
To support this theory, there have been a number of studies showing lower rates of allergy among children who have grown up with pets and older siblings. There was even a study that suggested that not having a dishwasher can make children less likely to develop allergies because handwashing dishes leaves more germs for their immune systems to practice on.
• Lack of exercise/nutrients. There is evidence linking a sedentary lifestyle to a heightened risk for both eczema and asthma. Beyond physical activity, diet can affect one’s risk for allergy as well. Research shows that diets high in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables can reduce the inflammation that contributes to allergies and asthma.
• Pollution. Asthma and asthma-related hospital admissions increase significantly during periods of heavy pollution, shedding light on the effect that pollutants can have on the immune system. Indoor pollutants, such as mold or fumes from household cleaners or paint, can trigger allergies and asthma.
Outdoors, ozone and sulfur dioxide, both components of smog, can irritate the lungs and exacerbate asthma and allergy symptoms. If you live in a place with high smog levels, you are at a greater risk for allergy-related conditions. With climate change notching up ozone production, allergies are predicted to worsen significantly in future years. As a side note, climate change is also increasing the intensity and length of pollen season, opening the window for pollen to afflict us at a far higher rate.
Pesticides have also been linked to increased levels of allergies and asthma as people become sensitized to the chemicals they comprise. This manifests through both skin and respiratory allergies.
You may notice that we have left references to breastfeeding off of this list. For a long time, scientists believed that breastfed babies had a lower chance of developing allergies, but this debate continues with a raft of conflicting studies cancelling each other out.
The good news is that just because you are more prone to allergies doesn’t mean that you are stuck with them. If your allergies are mild and only affect you for a few months of the year, medications may be able to take the edge off of your symptoms and get you through the pollen storms. If your allergies are severe and/or extend for more than a few months of the year, you might be a candidate for allergy immunotherapy—the only treatment that affects the allergic disease itself, not just its symptoms.
Allergy immunotherapy is available through allergy drops (sublingual immunotherapy) or allergy shots (subcutaneous immunotherapy). At AllergyEasy, we prescribe sublingual immunotherapy, which is safer than allergy shots and, as a result, can be administered at home.
Allergy drops shine in areas where shots do not:
• Safety for young children. SLIT can be prescribed for young children who may not yet be candidates for shots due to a heightened risk for negative outcomes from anaphylactic reactions.
• Convenience. No more driving to the doctor’s office a couple of times per week for shots. Allergy drops can be dosed anytime, anywhere without fear of an anaphylactic reaction.
• Efficacy with food allergies. Allergy shots aren’t safe for food allergy treatment, but allergy drops have been shown to be both safe and effective in desensitizing patients to dozens of food allergens. Ask about our nut, milk, and wheat allergy treatment using sublingual immunotherapy drops.
Talk to an AllergyEasy doctor to learn more. You may be prone to allergic misery, but there’s a way out.