It’s an allergy weather again. If you’re one of the 81 million Americans with hay fever, spring is a mixed blessing. Yes, the days are longer, but they are accompanied by itchy eyes, runny noses, and the endless hunt for antihistamines. On high pollen days, seasonal allergies are like an attack from the outside, and our immune systems go to war.
There are increasing numbers of people suffering from allergies, too. In 1997, about 0.4 percent of US children were reported to have a peanut allergy. By 2008 the figure was 1.4 percent. In the UK, hospital admissions due to food allergies more than tripled between 1998 and 2018. And while the number of asthma attacks – often caused by allergies – has fallen in the US, it continues to rise globally due to rising numbers in developing countries. . We are also seeing an increase in rare allergies, such as alpha-gal allergy, where some people who are bitten by certain types of ticks develop a strong reaction to red meat.
Looking at the rise in allergies, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is out of kilter. Whether it’s the outside world, our bodies, or the complicated relationship between the two, something is going wrong. The question is why—and what can we do about it?
A good place to start is to find out what hell sores really are. In his book The Body: How Our Immune System Works in a Changing World, clinical psychologist Theresa MacPhail tries to do just that. One theory is that inflammation evolved as a way for the body to remove carcinogens and toxins—from insect stings to snake bites. Even hundreds of years ago, the immune system’s exaggerated response to snakebites may have been an effective way to get the body to respond, one researcher tells MacPhail.
As the world has changed, our immune system begins to seem insurmountable with the threats we face. It doesn’t help that the growing seasons are getting longer and longer, causing people to get sick with pollen earlier in the spring. At the same time, changes in diet and lifestyle are disrupting our microbiomes, possibly making children more susceptible to food cravings. Stress can also affect our susceptibility to allergies – we know that stress hormones cause a similar response in the cells of mice when their bodies are allergic to them.
If this sounds a little uncertain, then you’re right. As MacPhail has discovered, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s causing the rise in allergies—doctors don’t even agree on what allergies are. and or how to know better. But MacPhail has a good reason for getting into this trouble. In August 1996, his father was walking down a New Hampshire road on his way to the beach with his girlfriend. A bee flew through the open window of the sedan and stung him on the side of the neck. Soon after, his father died of an anaphylactic shock; he was 47. “You’re here today because you want to know why your father died,” an allergist told MacPhail during an interview.