Researchers at Ohio State University have just released the findings of a study that suggests allergic reactions that occur during times of stress are likely to last longer and be more severe than reactions to the same allergens during times of little or no stress. The research team presented its findings on August 14 to the American Psychological Association at its annual meeting in Boston.

Describing allergies as “not minor problems,” Jan Kiecolt-Glaser explains that allergies alone are usually not a threat to life but they often accompany asthma, which can be fatal. Some allergy statistics developed over thirty years of research include:

  • Allergies are the #5 most common form of chronic disease in the United States;
  • Medical expenses for treating allergies climb as high as $3.4 billion a year;
  • 38% of people with allergic rhinitis (hay fever) also suffer from asthma;
  • 78% of all people who suffer from asthma also have allergic rhinitis;
  • Americans spend $2.3 billion each year on allergy medications;
  • They spend $1.1 billion on doctor visits to treat allergies; and
  • 3.5 million work days are lost each year due to allergies.

Kiecolt-Glaser enlisted 28 men and women with histories of seasonal allergies and hay fever for a two-and-one-half day study in which each participant would get the standard skin-prick test for common allergies and submit to blood serum samples at various stages throughout the study. Questionnaires designed to determine psychological status were administered as well, with emphasis on level of anxiety, feelings of control, self-confidence, and stress.

Serum samples were taken and skin-prick tests administered before and after each participant completed each one of three increasingly stressful exercises – reading a magazine, taping themselves reading the magazine aloud, and giving a 10-minute speech to a panel of experts described as behavioral evaluators after which a series of math questions were solved without the use of pen or paper.

The raised wheals that developed around the skin-prick test sites were as much as 75% larger after the more stressful exercises, with evidence of allergic reaction still evident the following day. Signs of allergic reaction the following day, a situation called as late-phase reaction, were four times more likely when stress levels were highest.

Serum analysis revealed corresponding evidence of the effects of stress on the allergic reaction. The level of stress hormones in the bloodstream was elevated in accordance with the level of interleukin-6 (IL-6) produced by the cells in response to allergens. The elevated levels of these chemicals are thought to be the reason for the late-phase reaction to the allergens.

One danger of late-phase reaction is that the allergic response strengthens as it continues, providing opportunity for a person to become allergic to a substance that had not generated an allergic response previously. Another concern is the use of antihistamines to treat allergic reactions. Antihistamines usually have no effect on late-phase reactions.

The research team expresses the concern that treating an allergic reaction, including an asthmatic reaction, at the time of occurrence may not be effective when the reaction is compounded by a high level of stress. The following day’s strengthened response to the allergen has the potential to escalate into a life-threatening situation.

The National Institutes of Health provided some funding for this study.

Source: Ohio State University