6 Mar 2017

Allergy Epidemic

Allergies are everywhere, its reaching epidemic proportions!

This scenario is familiar to many doctors.  The patient has a rash, a cough, a runny nose or whatever.  “Do you think I could be allergic to something?”  Scratch, scratch, cough, cough, sniff, sniff, rub, rub.  “I gave up milk but it didn’t a damn bit of difference.  D’ye think it could be a wheat allergy?”  The doctor grits his teeth and resists the temptation to scream.  “I went to a Chinese herbalist.  He told me to give up tomatoes, potatoes, onions, toothpaste, red wine and stop using hair gel.”  Scratch, scratch, sniff, sniff, cough.  “Which is funny because I never use hair gel and can’t afford red wine.”

The doctor has had this (and many variations) asked every day and is fed up with allergy.  He prescribes an antihistamine for the patient and an anti-depressant for himself.

Who’s right?  Is the patient a nuisance?  Or is the doctor too dismissive?

Consider these statistics:

  • Up to 28 % of the population suffer some type of allergy
  • 15% need to see a specialist because of the complexity of the conditions.
  • Children are particularly affected.  1 in 50 children have a life-threatening nut allergy, apart from other food allergies.
  • Allergy has become more complex and severe.  At least 10% of children and young adults have more than one allergic disorder.
  • The number of people suffering from allergic problems has doubled in the last twenty years.  The causes behind this increase are speculative but include suggestions such as atmospheric pollution, greater use of carpets, curtains, soft furnishings and central heating in homes, overuse of antibiotics in infancy.  Certainly the more ‘Westernised’ a society becomes, the more allergy surfaces.

The Westernised Theory

The ‘Westernised’ theory has gained much credence from experience in dealing with the new immigrants to Ireland during the boom years.  Sara Olowangu grew up in Zimbabwe.  Her home was a rural community, the house made of concrete blocks held together with a basic cement of mud and straw.  There were no domestic animals, only dogs to protect the homestead and cattle for milk and meat.  Her diet was basic but adequate and she was healthy.  She met and married an Irishman (Michael) and he took her to meet his family.  Michael grew up on a stud farm with horses in nearby fields.  Long haired labradors had the run of the house and often slept on rugs in front of the fire.  It was an old farmhouse, with heavy drapes and carpets.

On Sara’s first visit she sneezed a lot and everyone said she had a bad cold.  On the second visit Sara became totally blocked in the nose and sinuses and developed a cough.  This eased when she left.  On her third visit she had an asthma attack (the first in her life) and erupted in eczema. Allergy testing showed Sara had strong allergies to dust mites and horse hair.  There was no discounting the connection between her sudden deterioration from good health and the change in her environment.

Sara was allergic in Zimbabwe but her simple lifestyle protected her.  When she moved to another and overwhelming environment her immunity couldn’t cope with the provocation and she became unwell.  The allergic challenge started in her nose (‘head cold’), chest (‘chest cold’) and then moved to her skin (‘eczema’).  In Sara’s case it took an asthma attack to pull these inter-linking symptoms together.  Her protective barrier crumbled in the face of an overwhelming allergic challenge.

UK Report

In the UK a House of Commons Select Committee investigated allergy in detail.  The committee concluded Britain was experiencing an epidemic of allergy.  The group decried the paucity of allergy services to deal with the millions of people suffering allergy symptoms.  Unfortunately the situation is no different here with demand for specialised allergy services greater than what is available.

The main allergic conditions are: 

  • allergic rhinitis (nose/sinuses)
  • urticaria (skin)
  • allergic eczema (skin)
  • urticaria (skin)
  • allergic asthma (chest)
  • hay fever (nose/sinuses/eyes)
  • food allergy induced anaphylaxis (a dangerous total body allergic reaction)

Fortunately doctors have a full arsenal of anti-allergy drugs to help sufferers overcome their disabilities and lead normal lives.


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