Allergies are a normal part of everyday life. Lots of us have them, some are little more than minor irritations while others can be life-threatening, deeply impacting people’s everyday lives.
But has it always been this way or are allergy rates on the rise? Where do these strange afflictions come from?
The answer is a little complicated. Scientists understand what causes allergies but amazingly we’re not sure where they come from. Are they a modern problem or have humans always had them? Let’s take a look at the fascinating history of allergies and try to separate scientific fact from fiction and old wives’ tales.
What are Allergies?
For many of us, allergies are like those pesky houseguests who overstay their welcome. They show up uninvited, make a mess of things, and leave us feeling utterly exasperated. For others they’re more like home invaders, breaking in, destroying everything, and then threatening your life to boot. But in this case, the “mess” they create is within our own bodies.
To understand allergies, let’s take a peek inside our immune system. Normally, this system is a remarkable defender, keeping us safe from harmful invaders like bacteria and viruses. But sometimes, it can get a bit too zealous and mistake harmless substances (known as allergens) as dangerous threats.
When an allergic person encounters an allergen, their immune system goes on high alert. Specialized immune cells, called mast cells, release chemicals like histamine to combat the perceived threat. Histamine is like the alarm bell of the immune system, causing inflammation and various annoying allergy symptoms.
How the body reacts depends on the severity of the sufferer’s allergy and allergies come in different shapes and sizes, leading to a wide range of symptoms. For many people, the symptoms can include irritating things like sneezing, itching, a runny nose, nasal congestion, watery eyes, hives, and skin rashes. All very unpleasant to live with.
However, some unlucky sufferers have it much worse. Extreme reactions can cause severe breathing difficulties and even anaphylaxis (where the immune system floods the body with chemicals to fight the perceived threat, causing body-wide inflammation, affecting breathing and the cardiovascular system).
These extreme allergy cases can be life changing. For example, people with severe nut allergies spend their entire lives scanning the labels of everyday products just to make sure there’s no trace of a nut in the recipe or to make sure the product wasn’t made in a factory that uses nuts in other products. One slip-up can mean death.
While allergies can be a real nuisance, the good news is that there are ways to manage and treat them effectively. Over-the-counter antihistamines are commonly used to alleviate mild allergy symptoms by blocking the effects of histamine. Nasal corticosteroids can also reduce inflammation in the nasal passages, providing relief for nasal allergy symptoms.
For those with more severe allergies, allergen immunotherapy, commonly known as allergy shots, can be an option. These shots expose the immune system to tiny amounts of allergens over time, helping to desensitize the person to the allergen and reduce their allergic reactions.
In recent years, the development of targeted biological medications has revolutionized allergy treatment. These medications specifically target certain immune system components involved in allergic reactions, providing relief for individuals with moderate to severe allergies.
The History of Allergies
So, how long have we known about allergies? If we take a look at historical records, we can find references to allergy symptoms going back to ancient civilizations. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all documented interesting cases of skin rashes and respiratory symptoms caused by contact with specific substances.
In particular, the Roman Julio-Claudian dynasty (Augustus, Claudius, and Britannicus) appear to have had a family history of atopy, a genetic disposition towards certain allergies. However we must treat carefully here: the “allergy” we find in historical documents could in fact be a number of other things.
Of course, noticing the symptoms doesn’t mean ancient healers had any idea what they were actually dealing with. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the concept of allergies started to gain traction in the world of medical science.
In 1819 the British physician Dr. John Bostock described “summer catarrh”, or common hay fever as it’s known today. He connected it to the blooming of certain plants during the spring and summer months, this marked one of the earliest documented observations of allergic reactions to airborne allergens.
Jump forward nearly one hundred years and the actual term “allergy” was coined by Austrian pediatrician Clemens von Pirquet in 1906. He derived it from the Greek words “allos” (other) and “ergon” (reaction) and used it to describe the altered activity of the immune system to otherwise harmless substances. Von Pirquet’s work laid the foundation for the understanding of allergic reactions in the medical community.
Then, in 1921 another significant milestone occurred when researchers Leonard Noon and John Freeman introduced allergen immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots. They successfully demonstrated that injecting tiny amounts of allergens could desensitize patients and alleviate allergic symptoms.
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Throughout the 20th century, advancements in medical science furthered our understanding of allergies and their mechanisms. The discovery of histamine and its role in allergic reactions in the 1930s paved the way for antihistamine medications. These drugs became widely available in the 1940s, providing relief for allergy sufferers.
Today, allergies are a well-established area of medical science, and ongoing research continues to enhance our knowledge and treatment options. But this doesn’t mean we know everything about them. In particular, their origins remain somewhat of a mystery.
What’s the Mystery?
We know what causes the symptoms of allergies, an overreaction of the immune system, but we don’t fully understand why the immune system does this. Safe to say it’s a bit of a design flaw. Likewise, while we can see from the historical record that allergies have existed for a long time, we can’t seem to account for their rapid increase in prevalence.
One reason for the mystery is the fact that the immune system is immensely complex. The immune system is a remarkably intricate network of cells, tissues, and molecules that constantly interact with each other. Understanding how and why it sometimes goes awry in response to harmless substances presents a challenging conundrum.
Moreover, the rise of allergies seems to be associated with changes in modern lifestyles, such as increased urbanization, industrialization, and dietary shifts. As humans, we’ve made a habit of stuffing ourselves with compounds nature never intended and filling our environment with pollution. However, pinpointing specific environmental factors responsible for the surge in allergies has proven to be difficult due to the multifactorial nature of these conditions.
We’re also, generally speaking, cleaner than ever. Some of us are downright hygiene obsessed. The hygiene hypothesis proposes that reduced exposure to infections and microbes might be a contributing factor to the rise in allergies. For example, tests have shown babies allowed to get a little dirty, and who are exposed to different food types from an early age, seem to be less likely to develop certain allergies.
But at the end of the day, scientists still don’t have a clear idea of what caused the emergence of allergies. All we know is that while they’ve been around for a long time, they definitely seem to be on the increase. We don’t know why some of us are genetically predisposed and others aren’t.
But we are beginning to get a fairly good idea of what is causing the increase in cases. Like so many problems today it seems to be caused by how we treat our bodies and how we treat the world around us. The body is an incredibly complex machine, and we still don’t fully understand how our actions affect it in the long term.
But there’s hope. Every day our understanding of the human body, immunology, and genetics grows. With every step we make we get close to unveiling the full story of allergies. With every discovery, we pave the way for improved treatments and a brighter, allergy-aware future.
Top Image: Allergies have a complicated history and we don’t really understand their increasing prevalence. Source: Robert Kneschke / Adobe Stock.