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2-small-flowersandbuginvaseAccording to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, more than half of Americans have one or more allergies. Most dangerous is penicillin. Most disgusting (subjective assessment) are cockroaches, which can cause severe asthma.

Cockroach allergies are a major problem in inner cities. After cockroaches die they dry out and disintegrate, and specks of their body parts become airborne.

Contrary to myth, desert cities are not necessarily the best place to escape allergy seasons. For real relief from allergic asthma, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation suggests you go to San Francisco. It has clean air, better than average smoking bans, and school-inhaler access, for starters. The foundation named Memphis as the most challenging city to live in with asthma.

What is an Allergy?

For starters, sneezing in response to sunlight is not evidence that you’re allergic to the sun. There are several types of sun allergies that produce rashes, hives, and welts. But sneezing uncontrollably in response to bright sunlight is a neurologic reflex, not an allergic response.

Think of allergies and their welts, rashes, digestive problems, and breathing problems as “Mr. Magoo Syndrome.” In the cartoon series, old, nearsighted Mr. Magoo might do something foolish like mistake a mouse for a tiger, and shoot. Immune systems can become “myopic,” too—possibly when they’re deprived of the germs and parasites they evolved to fight. Mistaking innocuous particles like dust mites for lethal invaders, they blast them with histamines.

Or so said epidemiologist David Strachan about 25 years ago. While his “hygiene hypothesis” is still somewhat controversial, no one has effectively countered that theory in the years since.

2cockroachPhilosopher Sharyn Clough of Oregon State University suggests that, if David Strachan was right and people become allergic when their immune systems have not enough to do, he may have explained why, on average, more women have allergic asthma than men. As girls most of them regularly bathed or showered. That’s a pretty tough thing to get some boys to do.

And when kids do bathe, some complain. Acquagenic urticaria is a rash caused by contact with water. The National Institutes of Health classify it as a rare disorder. Because they’re difficult to find, rare disorders are difficult to count. Some scientists believe acquagenic urticaria affects only one in 23 million people.
Still, if your brother or sister claims an allergy to baths—well, have you ever considered he or she might not be lying?

Food Allergies

Most food allergies are an immune reaction to a protein. Food allergies typically cause hives and digestive problems. But they can also cause anaphylactic shock, meaning that the person having the allergic reaction stops breathing. Without very quick medical intervention, anaphylactic shock is usually fatal.

The Mayo Clinic estimates that, in the United States, allergies to shellfish, nuts, fish, milk, eggs, and wheat kill 150-200 people a year.

In 2004 a team at Dublin’s Trinity College experimented with a group of mice bred to have anaphylactic shock reactions to a certain protein. The researchers tried the novel idea of injecting the mice with parasites, giving the parasites time to replicate, and then feeding the mice the food to which they were allergic. The scientists’ idea was that, maybe with parasites on the attack, the mice’s immune systems might be too distracted to attack food proteins.

The experiment completely worked. No inoculated mice stopped breathing when they were given food that had killed other mice from their colony.

An Exotic Approach to Pollen and Cat Allergies

kittyExcited by research like Trinity College’s mice experiments, in 2007 a British-born entrepreneur named Jasper Lawrence flew to Cameroon on the west coast of Africa. He visited rural villages, asked where the latrines were, and walked around barefoot. In hopes of ridding himself of terrible cat and pollen allergies he was trying to expose himself to hookworms, a non-fatal parasite that he hoped would give his immune system something real to fight.

Lawrence had been so allergic to cats that even lightly touching his face after lightly touching a cat would swell his eyes shut. After his hookworm exposure he tested whether he still had a cat allergy by visiting his ex-wife. Her refusal to give up her pet cat had helped make their marriage impossible. Lawrence asked to play with the cat, and nothing bad happened at all.

Since overcoming his cat and pollen allergies, Lawrence has started a parasite therapy business. He ships the parasites worldwide (but not anywhere in the United States, where the FDA prohibits it). For $3,000, customers receive up to 35 hookworm larvae.

The instructions are to apply the larvae to a bandage, slap it on, and let the parasites wriggle through your skin over the next 24 hours.

Does it work? Maybe. There are no definitive data.

A quick aside about cat allergies: A 2000 study at Long Island Hospital in Brooklyn of 300 allergic people found that those with darker colored cats were two to four times more likely to have severe or moderately severe runny noses than those with lighter colored cats or no cats.

We have no good information on the color of Jasper Lawrence’s ex-wife’s cat.

The Upside of Allergies

According to data from at least eleven different studies since the early 1990s, allergies might be good for you. In 2009 a study conducted by researchers at several American universities found that the more allergies one has, the lower the risk is of developing a brain cancer called glioma, the kind of malignancy that killed Ted Kennedy.

Examining a database of almost 17,000 patients, researchers at Copenhagen University found other health benefits to allergies. In 2011 they reported that people who develop rashes, hives, or welts upon contact with certain metals or chemicals are less likely to develop brain cancer, breast cancer, and certain skin cancers.

They are, however, more likely to develop bladder cancer.

Global Warming and Allergies

Here’s why we should really hate climate change: A multi-institution team of researchers reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has demonstrated that the ragweed pollen season in North America has increased since 1995—by 16 days in Minneapolis and by 27 days in Saskatoon.

With luck, the onion growing season is getting longer, too. In 1987 a team at the Ludwig-Maximillians-University in Munich documented dietary onions’ anti-asthmatic effects.

Too bad some people are allergic to onions.

Did You Know?

  • CloseupBugAccording to the Mayo Clinic’s web site, nickel is one of the most common causes of allergic rash and hives. Jewelry with nickel in it can be a problem. And according to researchers from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, so can cell phones—especially ones with unlimited usage plans.
  • You know those radio frequency ID tags that identify lost pets? London-based industrial designer Hannes Harms has designed prototype edible RFID tags that, when embedded in food, could be read by smart plates that warn allergic eaters about problem ingredients.
  • You say “surgery,” I say “subterfuge.” When Michael Jackson was asked in 2001 by an interviewer for TV Guide about the swath of grey bandages suspiciously covering his nose, he replied that it was analgesic tape—”for allergies.”
  • When your pets can’t stand the itching, can they send you to the pound? Human dander can cause allergic rashes in dogs and cats—and in humans.
  • Warning: A walk in the grass could turn you vegan. Scott Commins at the University of Virginia has shown that tick bites can cause the immune system to produce antibodies to alpha-gal, a carbohydrate in beef, pork, and lamb. These antibodies can induce allergic reactions to meat. “We’ve had people nearly die,” Commins says.