What Causes Allergies?

What causes allergies


By Dr. Rob Ivker, M.D., Nationally recognized physician and best-selling author.
My initiation into the world of respiratory disease occurred in the summer of 1952 when at the age of 5 I developed severe hay fever. The allergy to ragweed pollen left me almost incapacitated. In addition to the sneezing, itching, drippy, and stuffed up nose, I felt tired and my eyes were so sensitive to sunlight that I couldn’t open them outdoors. And indoors it was also a struggle to keep my eyes open due to the terribly sedating antihistamine prescribed by my physician father. I usually went to sleep after taking one. Unfortunately, in the early 50’s this was the only available option for symptom relief, and that’s been the case until the past twenty years. We now have the choice of using either non-sedating antihistamines or steroid nasal sprays to escape the misery of most cases of seasonal hay fever or pollen allergy. For me, the allergy symptoms would recur every year in late August and persist until late September or the first frost. To say that I was miserable would have been a gross understatement.

I, like many millions of pollen allergy or hay fever sufferers, learned to dread particular seasons of the year. My late summer/early fall allergy was to ragweed pollen. Early spring – March/April – the air fills with tree pollen; and late spring/early summer – May/June – is the grass pollen season. If your allergy symptoms tend to be seasonal then you are probably one of nearly 30 million Americans who suffer from hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis as it’s called in the medical profession.

However, there are many allergy sufferers whose symptoms are year-round, called perennial allergic rhinitis, and are caused by something other than pollen – dust mites, mold, cats, dogs, and food.

Dust mites thrive wherever dust collects in a house. They leave droppings about the size of a pollen grain and just as easy to inhale. The mites prefer the warm, humid climates of coastal cities—New Orleans is high on the list of offenders in the United States—but they are very rare in cities above 6,000 feet, where the air is dry.

Mold spores can be found on food, leather, furniture, and especially in dark, damp areas such as bathrooms, basements, refrigerators, and air conditioners. Outdoors, they can grow on: crops, grass, and dead leaves. There can be hundreds of thousands of mold spores per cubic meter of air, and we inhale about 10 to 12 cubic meters of air each day. Unfortunately, these spores cause significant allergic reactions in millions of people.

About 25 percent of allergy sufferers are allergic to cats. The offending substance is the cat’s saliva, which is left on their fur during preening. Homes with cats can be so full of cat hair and dander that it can take up to six months after the cat is removed before it can be considered safe for someone who is allergic to cats.

There are a multitude of foods that can cause allergy symptoms. Surveys have shown that as many as 70 percent of Americans believe they are allergic to at least one particular food. Yet, a food allergy may be one of the most under-diagnosed conditions in this country because scientific testing has been inaccurate, it is expensive, and it demands carefully informed patients and technicians. If you suspect a food allergy, then I would suggest a food-elimination diet to confirm the diagnosis. Eliminate from your diet for at least three weeks the foods that are most likely to produce nasal allergy symptoms: wheat and other gluten grains (e.g. rye and oats), cow’s milk and all dairy products, chocolate, corn, oranges, eggs, and artificial food coloring. After that, begin to introduce each of these foods into your diet at the rate of one every three days. It should be obvious to you which foods cause your nose to react.

Allergy skin tests are medicine’s most definitive method of diagnosing the cause of allergic rhinitis from airborne substances such as pollen, animal dander, etc. They involve injecting bits of suspected allergens in different places under the skin, or applying them to scratches on the arm or the back. If a particular area swells, reddens, and itches, the patient more often than not is allergic to that substance.

Most physicians agree that allergies result from a hyper-reactive or aberrant functioning of the immune system and that they tend to run in families. But there is no mention within the medical community of an emotional component causing allergies, nor is there any explanation for the tremendous increase in the number of allergy sufferers in the past thirty years. My “sandpaper” theory holds that as we breathe polluted and particulate-laden air 23,000 times a day, we are causing chronic irritation (“rubbing the surface raw”) and inflammation of the nasal mucous membrane. This creates a hyper-reactive membrane that, given the right genetic predisposition, emotional stress, and adequate exposure to an allergen, can precipitate a lifetime of allergies.

Robert S. Ivker, DO, ABHM, FAAFP is a board-certified holistic physician and Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians. He has been practicing medicine since 1972 in Denver, CO. Dr. Ivker is the Co-Founder and Past-President of the American Board of Holistic Medicine, Past-President of the American Holistic Medical Association, former Assistant Clinical Professor in the Dept. of Family Medicine and Clinical Instructor in the Dept. of Otolaryngology at the University of CO School of Medicine. He is the author of the best-selling Sinus Survival, along with 6 other books. His latest book, Love Your Nose Naturally!is now available.