Some people peel a potato and get itchy hands, some put on a lipstick and get swollen lips or walk into the sun and sneeze. Some wake up with asthma, others just feel tired all the time.
Allergies have probably plagued us for generations, but it is only recently that the medical and scientific professions have turned their attention to analyzing seriously the estimated one-in-10 of us who have some sensitivity to the products we touch, the air we breathe and the food we eat.
The reactions – the itching, swelling and sneezing – are as varied as their source which can be anything from cats to cosmetics to cushions.
The most common irritants – house dust mites, grass pollens and animals – have been around since the year dot and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that we are any more sensitive to them than our grandparents.
The only difference is that these allergies are more often diagnosed in the 1980s. But there is another group of trouble-makers in food and household items. And you would not have found most of them 50 years ago.
The worst offenders are food additives, pesticides and solvents. Many allergists warn that our bodies will not be able to cope with the battering from 21st century chemicals and pollutants that are finding their way into our airways and blood systems, causing physical and psychological illness.
Irritants – traditional and modern – are responsible for illnesses not usually associated with allergies – asthma, arthritis, stomach ache, diarrhea, constipation, rhinitis, colitis, migraines and plain old lethargy.
Sometimes, an allergic reaction can be fatal, usually from asthma, but for most people it means sneezing and scratching. And it seems the chemical irritants are more likely to produce behavioral changes than mites and grasses.
The link between additives and hyperactivity is still being debated. Other psychological problems in adults and children include depression, anxiety, paranoia and moody or aggressive behavior.
An allergy is a biological reaction to an allergen (a foreign protein, drug or chemical) that involves the production of antibodies, resulting in the body releasing chemicals. The best known are histamines, which tighten air passages in the lungs, causing asthma.
But there are many biological reactions that do not involve the production of antibodies. Strictly speaking, they are sensitivities, rather than allergies, but the reaction is the same.
At first, the medical profession was slow to accept the link between allergies and illness but it now seems to be warming to the task. It is only in the past decade that scientists have begun to work out exactly what causes such reactions as anxiety, headaches, upset bowels and loss of hair.
Microscopic studies of the droppings of house dust mites may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is part of the fast-growing science devoted to understanding allergies. These studies revealed that a nasty little molecule known as P1 is one of the major components and the major allergen in the droppings of the mite.
Experts now believe we are slowly breaking down our immune systems with the by-products of our hi-tech living. Our bodies face an onslaught of chemicals every day – from the air, the water, the soil and food.
One of the biggest threats faced by us and our by our children is the amount of pesticide and additives in our food and water. Look closely at the labeling on packaged and tinned products. If possible try to avoid using them in large quantities. Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables.
Your body does not need additives. Most are used by food processors to prolong the life of the product, to make it look or taste better or to disguise some other ingredient.
Some additives such as sorbic acid – code name preservative 200 – is a mold inhibitor used in some cheese slices, which for some people is a skin irritant.
Another is tartazine – code name additive 102 and used for yellow coloring. Some people react to tartazine. The most susceptible are asthmatics and aspirin-sensitive people. Hyperactive children should avoid this chemical. Reactions include skin rashes, hay fever, breathing problems and blurred vision.
Another yellow coloring is additive 110 which can cause skin rashes, swollen blood vessels, upset stomach and vomiting. Sodium nitrite (additive 621) is a preservative with potential side effects such as nausea, vomiting, head aches. and circulatory system problems.
Nitrites have been shown to form nitrosamines in the stomach which are carcinogenic in some animals. Nitrites are found in some cold meats, pickles and salamis.
Always check the labels on these foods.