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31 July 2023
According to recent statistics 20.2 per cent of the Australian population have had at least one allergic disease. The highest prevalence of allergies is in the working age population, with 78% of people with allergies aged 15 to 64 years, this amounts to 7.2 million cases of allergies. These statistics were reviewed in April 2011, some 10 years ago, however, since COVID in early 2020 these numbers are escalating and we are seeing an increase in skin irritations due to mask-wearing, stress and other issues.
This article presents the medical perspective of allergies and attempts to identify common myths and misconceptions associated with allergies as allergies are both common, but also misunderstood.
In brief, an allergy is an unusual or exaggerated immune response triggered by a particular substance. Symptoms often include itchy eyes, wheezing, and sneezing with the most common symptom being hay fever. For many people, allergic reactions are uncomfortable and unpleasant, but they can be life threatening for others.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 20% of people worldwide have an allergic condition, which is also reflected by the Australian statistics.
Considering their prevalence, understanding and dismissing the myths associated with allergies is an important task. Here, we tackle 11 such myths.
1. Allergies only develop in children
One persistent myth is that once you reach adulthood, you don’t develop any more allergies. This is untrue.
One study looked at the prevalence of food allergies in 40,443 adults. At the time of the survey, 10.8% of participants had a food allergy. However the researchers found that approximately half of these individuals with food allergies, at least one of these food allergies developed during adulthood.
2. There are no treatments for allergies
In general, the best way to minimise allergic reactions is to avoid triggers, whether a particular food or a type of animal. There are no cures for allergies. However, certain treatments can effectively reduce the symptoms. For instance, decongestants can relieve the nasal symptoms of allergies, while antihistamines and nasal steroid sprays can also be effective.
Additionally, allergy immunotherapy can help reduce allergies. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology states: “Immunotherapy involves giving gradually increasing doses of the substance, or allergen, to which the person is allergic. The incremental increases of the allergen cause the immune system to become less sensitive to the substance, probably by causing production of a ‘blocking’ antibody, which reduces the symptoms of allergy when the substance is encountered in the future.”
3. Food allergies and food intolerances are the same
This is not true: food allergies and food intolerances are different. When someone experiences a food allergy, it is driven by their immune system usually associated with the action of Immunoglobulin E (IgE).
During an IgE-mediated immune response IgE binds to receptors on specific cells, including mast cells and basophils. These cells then produce histamine and other compounds, causing symptoms to appear very rapidly.
On the other hand, intolerances do not involve the immune system, and symptoms take longer to appear. And while intolerances are not life threatening, food allergies can be in some cases.
4. Allergies are for life
Thankfully, this is a myth. Although some allergies do persist for life, studies confirm that some allergies may simply dissipate with age. Whether an allergy diminishes over time can depend on the allergen. Although most children ‘outgrow’ allergies to milk, egg, soy, and wheat, allergies to peanut, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are often lifelong.
5. Peanut allergies are the most serious
Although peanut allergies are common — affecting an estimated one in 100 children in Australia, and can certainly be dangerous, there is no way to rank allergy severity. Some individuals might have only a mild reaction to peanuts but, for others, it could spark anaphylaxis.
Although certain foods, such as tree nuts, shellfish, and eggs, account for most allergies, virtually any food can trigger a reaction. The severity of the reaction depends on an individual’s immune system.
6. Colds and allergies are the same
Although colds and allergies can share certain symptoms, including a blocked nose and runny eyes, they are different. Symptoms of a cold are caused by an immune response to viruses, while allergies are an immune response to an allergen.
Another important difference is that colds tend to last around 1–2 weeks, whereas allergies can, in some cases, last a lifetime.
7. Short-haired cats and dogs don’t trigger allergies
This is not true. For some people, certain breeds may be less likely to trigger allergies, but there are no hard and fast rules. Allergies are not triggered by an animal’s hair — they are set off by dead skin cells (dander), saliva, and urine. Additionally, pet hair or fur can collect pollen, mould spores, and other outdoor allergens.
8. Hypoallergenic breeds
Many people believe that certain cat and dog breeds are “hypoallergenic,” meaning they do not trigger allergies. However, this is a myth, experts explain. Contrary to popular opinion, there are no truly ‘hypoallergenic breeds’ of dogs or cats. Allergic dander in cats and dogs is not affected by length of hair or fur, nor by the amount of shedding.
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9. Continuous exposure to animals reduces allergies
There is a common theory that if someone with an animal allergy spends time with that type of animal, the allergy will slowly improve. But this is not the case. In fact, some pet owners can gradually become allergic to their pets over time. Once the immune system is primed or sensitised to an allergen, for instance, a pet, an individual remains allergic if they are exposed to high amounts of pet hair or dander. The idea of immunotherapy or ‘allergy shots’ and desensitization only work under the guidance of an allergist, and when exposed to an allergen in small and gradually increasing amounts.”
A related point, outlined by the authors that early introduction of pets at home may reduce the likelihood of developing an allergy in the first place. In other words, if pets are brought into a home when children are young, they may be less likely to develop allergies to those animals as they age.
10. Allergies aren’t serious
Thankfully, for many people, allergies are uncomfortable and inconvenient but not dangerous. However, for some individuals, an allergic reaction can culminate in anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis is a severe and, in some cases, life threatening allergic reaction. During this event, a large amount of histamine is released into the body, causing an inflammatory response. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, wheezing, stomach pain and cramps, diarrhea, anxiety, swelling of the feet, hands, lips, eyes, and sometimes the genitals, and loss of consciousness.
Even allergies that might be considered relatively minor, such as seasonal allergies, can cause significant issues. Hay fever can result in reduced quality sleep and, therefore, daytime sleepiness. In turn, this can make it more difficult to focus at work, increasing the risk of absenteeism or workplace accidents. One study investigating the impact of hay fever on “health-related quality of life of 616 participants”, concluded that hay fever impairs work productivity in a greater magnitude than hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
Flowers cause hay fever
Perhaps surprisingly, this is a myth. Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, is caused by airborne pollen. Flowers tend to produce large, sticky pollen, which does not fly through the air easily — flowers are designed to attract insects and fasten pollen to their bodies rather than release it into the air.
The major causes of hay fever are lighter pollen from grasses and trees.
Allergies are surprisingly common, and they vary from relatively minor to life threatening. It may be because of this prevalence and variety that so many myths are associated with them. Their counterintuitive nature might also play a part — after all, why should one’s immune system react to a peanut or a pooch? Although there is still no cure for allergies, scientists continue their voyage of discovery. One day, they will surely find a way to blunt their impact on the world’s populations.