• Question: Why do we have allergies?

    Asked by Raquel Sabaté to Dan, Helen, Katy, LauraAnne on 18 Nov 2016.
    • Photo: LauraAnne Furlong

      LauraAnne Furlong answered on 18 Nov 2016:

      An allergy is where your immune system is hypersensitive to something you eat or your surroundings, and reacts to it because it thinks it is a threat. You might have allergies because of genetics (you’re more likely to have an allergy if your parents have one), excess hygiene (your body isn’t used to germs or things in the environment, so it misinterprets it as a threat even though it is harmless), eating different food to the past (we now eat more processed food, with more added chemicals) and how we come in contact with food which might have been in contact with things likely to cause allergic reactions (like nuts), and possibly also the modern environment which has much more pollution than 20 years ago.

    • Photo: Helen Hanstock

      Helen Hanstock answered on 18 Nov 2016:

      Ooh, this is a question I would love to know the answer to…!

      We are still not totally sure why certain people get allergies. For example, why is a child allergic to peanuts if neither of their parents or siblings are, and why are allergies on the rise in the Western world?

      A study came out very recently that looked at the % of primary school children who had nut/peanut allergies in Australia. In particular they looked at Asian children who were born in Asia (where nuts and peanuts are part of the diet) and Asian children who were born in Australia to Asian parents. The children who had been born in Australia had a much higher chance of developing an allergy than the children born in Asia (with the same ethnicity). These results suggest to us that it is something about our environment rather than just our genes that causes allergies. We are still not sure why allergies are rising in the Western world but we have a few ideas that allergy scientists are working on right now!

      An allergy is when a person’s immune system becomes hyper-sensitive to a particular protein. Our immune systems have a really important job to defend our bodies against some foreign bugs but in today’s world we really don’t come across very harmful infections very often, because our hygeine standards have become so much better during the 20th and 21st centuries. So one theory is that our bodies’ immune systems become hypersensitive to things that should actually be harmless to us. Another hypothesis is that our use of antibiotics has caused changes in the good and bad bacteria that live in our guts and that this could have a role in making us more sensitive to allergens.

      Scientists and doctors are working on protocols that could help people with really severe allergies to become less sensistive to their allergen so that they might not have to worry about coming across ‘traces’ of allergens in their foods, but this is still a work in progress although early clinical trials seem to have been successful, for peanut allergy at least. Hopefully it won’t be too many more years before a ‘cure’ for severe allergies becomes approved and more widely available.

      However, your question is a great one because it is definitely a question that science and medicine hasn’t quite managed to get to the bottom of yet!

    • Photo: Katy Griggs

      Katy Griggs answered on 18 Nov 2016:

      Interesting question. Recent research into allergies has looked at the effect of exposing individuals to the allergy, such as peanuts as a baby, which are believed to cut the risk of developing the allergy by 80%. Further work is planned for allergies of other foods.