Now Almost Everyone Has Allergies

Allergies today are a common fact of life. They were not as recently as a generation ago. What has changed? The air we breathe. Find author Bill Allin at


Now Almost Everyone Has Allergies

"They’re just allergies."
- quote from a Reactine allergy medication commercial

The point of the commercial is that they are not "just allergies." But what are allergies?

Our bodies are set up to fight invasions by foreign bodies that could do them harm. Our immune system does most of the work fighting invaders, though billions of bacteria that live symbiotically with us (primarily on our skin and in our gut) help out considerably.

Generally speaking those good bacteria (we could not live without them) don’t cause us much trouble. They depend on us, we depend on them, and we all get along splendidly. Our own immune systems cause the problems. (Antibiotics kill these good bacteria, by the way.)

Allergies are mostly an affliction of the modern era. In my classroom career teaching young children, which ended a generation ago, I came across only two kids with severe allergies. Both had problems learning because their allergies prevented them from thinking clearly.

One child, that I knew was of at least average intelligence, went through a battery of tests by a psychologist twice in the school year, then was sent the following year to a special education class for children with learning disabilities. I objected strenuously to my principal, but was overruled. I insisted that the tests had been given when the boy suffered most from his allergies, not when he was clear headed. I was not included in the decision. He joined a special class for children who mostly had low intelligence.

The other child, no doubt destined for the same fate, moved out of the community in February. His mother had tears in her eyes when she told me that they had to move, because her son had done so well in my care, but circumstances dictated. I could foresee a similar school track for him.

In those days, severe allergies were rare. A few kids had allergic reactions to pollen, in season, but only a few. One child suffered from asthma--the only student I had who did, and I only discovered it when the class went on an outing that required hiking in a wilderness area.

Today allergies in the classroom are so common that teachers expect them and classmates expect to be inconvenienced by those who require special treatment. Some teachers today need emergency medical training and training in the dispensing of medication for their kids.

Allergies are the body’s overreaction to a stimulus it doesn’t like. Asthma is, fundamentally, an extreme version of an allergy. Something gets into the body and the body reacts violently to get rid of it.

Just over a decade ago I developed an allergy. After extensive tests, my doctor declared that I had a "mild environmental allergy." Nothing that could be identified, thus avoided. I could either begin taking allergy shots or continue using profound quantities of tissues daily. I chose the latter.

Over the past year, my wife has developed the same allergy. To what? We don’t drink city water, so we do not subject our bodies to the 300,000 chemical pollutants that city water treatment plants don’t remove. But we can’t do anything about the half million pollutants factories put in the air that everyone breathes. All things considered, we decided to avoid wearing chemical gas masks all day long.

I also have an allergy to breathing very cold air. When I walk outside in winter, my sinuses go to work and my nose runs. Inconvenient. But, in doing so, the mucus may continue to warm my breathing passage, preventing them from freezing. This might be an adaptation by body has made to protect itself. In this case, is an allergy an adaptation to the environment?

As well, I begin to sneeze when my body senses a temperature change of two degrees or more. This "allergy" likely has the same cause, but is a side effect of the adaptation. It’s an overreaction by natural functions of my body, as all true allergies are.

These days, asthma is common. Allergies are so ubiquitous that almost everyone has one or more. Some have an allergy that is so common to them and that affects them year round that they don’t even know they have it. To them, it’s "just life as I am getting older."

Science and archeology writer Jeff D. Leach believes, as do many people, including health professionals, that kids and adults develop allergies because their homes are so clean that their immune systems have not been challenged enough. He wrote in the New York Times "the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us."

He quotes research that suggests we reintroduce some dirt into our lives to see a reduction in diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, several allergies and other diseases. Our immune systems were built to fight hard and constantly, and if they don’t they redirect their efforts and work against us.

If this has you scratching your head and doubting, more reading on the subject of allergies will relieve that doubt.

One allergy you likely were not aware of has been shown to cause obesity. It’s not the only cause, but it is one that has been identified through scientific tests.

Here are a few other facts you likely don’t know about allergies.

Thanks to advertisers who want us to live in a "clean" environment, our immune system has fewer enemies to fight. In desperation, it fires on relatively innocent targets  such as peanuts and cat dander. Our immune system is designed to fight for our survival throughout our life. When it doesn’t have an enemy, it invents one. Allergy symptoms are the results of a one-sided war.

The National Institutes of Health in the USA estimates that over half of Americans have at least one testable allergy. One of them is an allergy to penicillin, which can cause fatal anaphylaxis. Penicillin, when it first became public, was considered a great saviour against disease.

Food allergies are usually to a protein. A team at Trinity College Dublin, in 2004, injected mice with parasites of the kind that mouse immune systems would fight in the wild. It worked. The mice with previously weak immune systems developed healthy ones.

British entrepreneur Jasper Lawrence walked barefoot near some latrines in Cameroon, in 2007, to get infected by hookworms he believed would defeat asthma and seasonal allergies. It worked. For $3000 a person can receive up to 35 hookworm larvae which they put on a bandage and apply to their skin. Mr. Lawrence has not publicly reported the success rate for his business. (NOTE: this therapy is not legal in the USA.)

Between 150 and 200 Americans die each year from allergies to shellfish, nuts, fish, milk, eggs and other foods. They are serious allergies.

Tick bites you could get from walking barefoot in grass could cause your immune system to produce antibodies to alpha-gal, a carbohydrate commonly found in beef, pork and lamb. Resulting allergies to these meats could be fatal.

As many as 40,000 American women may be affected by an allergic sensitivity to male ejaculate (specifically seminal plasma hypersensitivity) which could result in symptoms from local swelling to systemic shock. Another reason for them to insist on the man using a condom.

An allergy to sex seems unfair. However, some women are allergic to their own progesterone, a sex hormone, developing anything from a rash to full shock.

Yes, pets can be allergic to human dander (cast off skin) as well as people can be allergic to pet dander.

Yes, some people are allergic to the sun. And some couples have to separate because they are allergic to each other.

But wait! A few rare individuals can develop aquagenic urticaria, a rash caused when they come in contact with water. Apparently they do not react to the 70 percent of their own body weight that is composed of water.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers.
Learn more about the book at

[Primary source: Discover, May 2012]