Why Are Allergies So Much Worse These Days?


300 years ago, we didn't have clean drinking water. Municipal water treatment began in the early 1800's. Our immune systems were always busy fighting cholera, typhoid, etc. 100 years ago, we didn't have antibiotics. We spent more time dealing with bacteria and parasites. And, 50 years ago we didn't all have wall-to-wall carpeting and spend 90 percent of our time indoors. Meanwhile, our immune systems developed over hundreds of thousands of years. 300 years is barely a blink of the eye in that time frame. Our immune systems are suddenly much less busy, and things have gotten "out of balance".

The word "allergy" did not exist before the year 1920. You will find references to "hay fever" starting in 1831 and "catarrh" in much older publications, but it was uncommon. It certainly didn't affect 15 to 20 percent of the population in westernized countries. As our environments get cleaner and cleaner, allergy and asthma are becoming much more prevalent. The correlation between the cleaner environment and the increase in allergies and asthma is explained in the Hygiene Hypothesis. Supporting this hypothesis are the facts that allergies are much less common in people who grow up on farms and those who live in non-Westernized countries.

The out-of-balance immune system can usually be helped with allergy shots, which celebrate their 100th birthday this year. The first publication by Drs. Noon and Freeman was in 1911 in The Lancet. Allergy shots (or drops) literally put the immune system back in "balance". With our cleaner environments, we can mistakenly interpret dust mites or ragweed as a germ, some type of foreign invader. The allergic reaction is an attempt by the body to fight off what is actually a harmless substance. Getting allergy shots (or drops) to the right level basically teaches your immune system how to tolerate, or ignore, the allergen.

Allergies can be a big headache, but they don't have to be. Get tested, get treated, and get better.

Note: Information contained in this article should not be considered a substitute for consultation with a board-certified allergist to address individual medical needs.

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