Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Allergies; a modern age nemesis

The World Allergy Organization (WAO) is an international umbrella organization whose members consist of 95 National Allergy Societies from around the world. They say that almost 40% of the globe's population is genetically prone to severe allergic reactions. Coming nearer home, a comprehensive study in 2014 by a clinical laboratory brings out a grim picture for India too. They tested 20,293 blood samples and have found that 15.7% of people had allergy. While 43.93% of those tested positive for allergy, suffered from dust allergy, 20.6% were allergic to pollens, 10.5 % to fungus and 10.3% to animal dander. The report says; “ One in seven people are suffering from one or the other kind of allergy at any given point of time and our body is intolerant to several substances it is exposed to. Such a high number clearly indicates that immunity levels of people are low and factors like pollution and dust are causing severe complications.”

Dr. James Sublett, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, is a practicing immunologist in Louisville, Kentucky. According to him, allergies essentially come to us as a genetic gift from our parents. If a parent has allergies, chances are good the children would have them too. But it does not mean that if a mother is allergic to a thing say rice, her children would show their allergic reactions all the time. We inherit our immune system that is predisposed to allergic reactions. And sometimes the symptoms don't emerge until later in life, when exposure to allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or mold, build up over time and reach a critical mass. This is absolutely true. I can vouch for it from my own allergic reactions.

It is one thing to know that we are all allergic to something or other, But how do we detect it? Allergy indicates an abnormally hypersensitive immune reaction to naturally occurring substances called antigens. Our bodies react negatively and often with a violent reaction, when we come into contact with these antigens. Some of the common body reactions can be listed as Hives, itching or eczema, Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body, Wheezing, nasal congestion or breathing difficulties. There could be even severe symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, dizziness and even light headedness or fainting.

I distinctly remember that till I was about 12 years old, I never had any attacks of allergies from either any food items or even environmental factors. With the adulthood, came the realisation that if I eat some types of foods, I start sneezing ( Guava fruit) or I do not feel comfortable in a dusty atmosphere. when I took my first job in the city of Mumbai, which has very sultry and humid weather, I found even more allergies affecting me badly.

Later in life, after I got married, my wife felt concerned about my allergies and took me to a Doctor, who was an allergy specialist. He pricked my forearm with scores of allergic agents or whatever that is called. By observing the skin reactions to these allergy agents, he gave me a big list grading my allergies to double plus, plus and negative classes. He then advised me to avoid things that fell in double plus category. Occasionally eat plus category foods and eat negative foods to my heart' content. The list was kind of funny. I could drink tea but no coffee, eat one kind of lentils and could use only one type of oil as cooking medium.

I tried to follow the regime quite strictly for first few weeks, but then realised that my life was becoming dull and boring, because there were so many restrictions on me. Finally I just gave up and started consuming things even in double plus category. Over last few decades, there have been many allergic ups and downs. I am no longer allergic to some foods, which once I was supposed to avoid. But their place has been taken by some other foods. Its all too much complicated. These days, I have even given up even thinking about allergies. If I am uncomfortable with some kind of food, I give it up for some time and try it again later after an year or so. Sometimes the allergy is no more there. But instead of that come the allergic reactions for foods to which I never had felt allergic before. I have almost come to assume that allergies are just one of the mysteries of life, which we just can not explain.

Some people regularly take medicines known as Anti-Histamines to suppress allergic reactions. However they can be at the best only a temporary solution. As soon as medicine is stopped, the allergic reactions recur. According to Dr. Sublett, factors that can trigger the onset of allergies in adults, include high levels of pollution exposure, moving to a home that has mold, adopting a pet or working in a setting where lots of allergens are present. Hormonal changes that come with pregnancy and menopause and even some viruses can trigger allergies. Another important factor is a common cold, which has the potential to tip the allergy scales in people who are already genetically inclined. Also as our bodies age, the body's immune system may become more sensitized and can bring on allergies. Allergies are actually there round the year but an attack may get triggered by things like contact with dust mites and furry animals. Somehow most people seem to complain about allergies the most during the spring and fall pollen seasons. Allergies come and go also. Allergies can go away, when triggers are removed. A change of climate, or getting rid of a pet, might relieve symptoms.

In India, allergies are often dismissed as a not-so-serious condition. Many of my friends call allergies as modern fads and recall that people from earlier generations never faced these problems. But some allergies can have serious consequences, besides making our day to day life quite painful. If one keeps on getting allergic reactions repetitively, best thing to do is to get blood tested for the the specific things that trigger allergic reactions and make an effort to avoid them. This is the only workable solution.

14th January 2014

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