Almost a quarter of Europeans have some kind of allergy; in Britain there are 20 million sufferers. Yet a century ago allergies were hardly heard of. Could this remarkable rise be a "fashionable response" to the modern world?
What are you allergic to? Cat fur? Dust mites? Latex? Peanuts? Seafood? Chemicals? Penicillin?
Or, as it's summer, the season to be sneezy, perhaps you are one of an estimated 12 million hay fever sufferers in Britain, currently itching your eyes, blowing your nose and in extreme cases feeling faint in response to the high pollen count.
Allergies are on the rise. About a third of the population - 20 million - will develop an allergy some time in our lives, according to a recent government estimate.
Cases of asthma, hay fever and eczema have risen between two- and three-fold in the UK over the past 20 years.
Food allergies are rising fastest. Allergies to peanuts
- which can be fatal - have trebled in the past five years.
Most worryingly, the most serious and potentially fatal form of allergic reaction - anaphylaxis - is on the rise too.
Can involve respiratory distress, falling blood pressure, vomiting and unconsciousness
More than 3,000 people admitted to hospital with it in 2005
20 of whom died
Why are more and more of us suffering from allergies?
Professor Mark Jackson, author of the provocative new book Allergy: The History of a Modern Malady, suggests allergies have become fashionable; a way to indicate you are a refined individual.
"I would never argue that allergies were not a real medical condition", says Professor Jackson. "But I think we need to explore the cultural aspects of allergies, and look at why there is a public preoccupation with them today."
During his research, Professor Jackson, director of the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter, found allergies were almost unknown 100 years ago.
"Asthma has quite a long history, and hay fever was known and discussed in the 19th Century. But others, such as food allergies, are very much a modern thing."
More than medical condition
In fact, the term "allergy" was only coined in 1906.
From the outset, allergies were considered to be more than a medical condition; they were also taken as evidence that sufferers were cultured and educated.
"To be allergic to something was an indicator that you were sensitive", says Professor Jackson. "Hay fever was diagnosed most frequently among the middle- and aristocratic classes, some of whom believed that having this affliction was evidence of their superiority.
"Hay fever acquired a specific character as a disease of the educated elite... a sign they were sensitive to their surroundings, that they were delicate and refined."
Indeed, in 1884 the physician Morell Mackenzie wrote: "Our national proclivity to hay fever may be taken as proof of our superiority."
One allergist noted the typical patient was "a delicate, upper-class, only child who developed into an emotionally and socially maladjusted adult."
No wish to insult
Professor Jackson says it isn't uncommon for diseases to take on a "cultural character". Aristocrats, for example, would boast about having gout, because that was seen as proof one enjoyed the finer things in life: red wine and red meat.
He believes that the idea that allergies are markers of an individual's sensitivity continues today.
Possible causes: double glazing, dust mites and obsession with cleanliness
"Consider food allergies. These rose exponentially in the 1990s, and that must surely be linked to various cultural factors - to the obsession with body image, weight, fears of food additives, and so on.
"In a sense, saying 'I have a food allergy' has become a way of saying 'I'm too sensitive for this modern, brutal world'," says Professor Jackson. He stresses he doesn't want to "insult" anybody with an allergy, and says two of his children have asthma.
Yet he thinks that, in some ways, the rise in allergies - and the nature of the public debate - can be seen as a "physical manifestation of cultural anxieties". In a sense, cultural trends have dictated a medical condition
"Our angst about modern living, the environment, what to eat, cars, pollution and many other things are projected onto the debate about allergies.
Not surprisingly, Professor Jackson's views are controversial, especially among allergy sufferers.
Were Professor Jackson's theory correct, says Muriel Simmons, chief executive of Allergy UK, someone with a food allergy could "train themselves to like a food and it would mean this ended their allergy".
"Most of the people with food allergies would love to be able to safely eat the food that could kill them. Having a food allergy is both scary and incredibly inconvenient and I speak from personal experience," says Ms Simmons.
'MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEM'
23% of Europeans suffer some kind of allergy
Results from random survey of 9,000 people by British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology
A 'major public health problem for the NHS,' says Prof Stephen Durham
She believes the rise in allergies is down to a "combination of things: double glazing, poorly ventilated houses, thick curtains, carpets, deep cushioned seating all make an idea environment for the house dust mite."
Another theory is the "hygiene hypothesis" which says that allergies are a response to the fact that we live in cleaner environments.
Professor Stephen Durham, President of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, says this means "children are not exposed to bacteria in the way they used to be, which might make them more sensitive to such things in the long run".
"Allergies are real rather than fashionable", says Professor Durham. "And we must find better ways to identify and treat them."
Professor Jackson doesn't deny allergies are very real and sometimes very serious.
"But what I'm arguing is that we need to broaden the debate, and look at how allergy has become a kind of index of cultural anxiety, explore the crossover between allergic sensitivity and cultural sensitivity.
"Yes we must treat allergies better, but we must understand them better too."
Yes Mr Jackson! I want to have mucus streaming out of my nose and red eyes every spring and summer because it is just so fashionable. You've seen right through me.
I wish my hayfever was just an excuse to seem fashionable. I'm 35 years old, and I remember as a child perhaps 1 or 2 people at school who had hayfever. My hayfever didn't start until I was about 25. It came from no where, never ever any "sniffles" in previous years. It is very intense, repeated sneezes, lots of "snot" and is a very real problem without the use of medication. There are obviously reasons for the increase in hayfever, pollution, diet... who knows, but for me it is genuinely real.
Richard Clayton, Hull, England
It is important not to mis-represent what Prof Jackson is trying to say, but the message I and my patients may read in this report is that we are all neurotic. I don't think that the parents of a child who has died from food allergy induced anaphylaxis would agree....
Clinical Nurse Specialist - Allergy, London
No-one seems to be looking at the other factors in life - generations of people eating food which has been treated with pesticides and herbicides... people taking antibioticcs to the extent that the earlier ones such as penicillin are less effective, food additives, added hormones designed to keep the cows producing milk all year round, etc. - what can all this chemical bombardment of the human race do except upset the balance of our bodies and cause allergic reactions and food intolerances.
Purple, Essex, UK
I have a severe allergy to nuts that developed only 4 years ago, well into my adult life. I can understand Professor Jackson's point that there is a blurring of allergic and 'cultural' sensitivity, as sometimes people say they have an allergy when really they mean 'it doesn't agree with me' i.e. it is an intolerance rather than an allergy. This can result in sufferers of severe allergies, like myself, perhaps not being taken so seriously.
Bron Ray, Sheffield
The problem with kids these days is definitely being wrapped up in cotton wool by their parents and living in an over-clean environment. I must have eaten half of the back garden when I was kid, making mud-pies and playing in the dirt just like kids should. What am I allergic to? Absolutely bugger all.
Nick Talbot, London, UK
Although there are some horrible allergies out there dare i say a lot are made up by medical companies creating new markets. When i was a kid you could drop a sweet off the floor and eat it! We have an immune system for a reason!! Evolution couldn't imagine in the future we'd have bleach etc in the future so our body's did the hard graft for us. Next we'll be told breathing is dangerous and can only be carried out in special buildings!!! Crazy ideas but people once thought the earth was flat.
I have had hayfever all my life, I can tell you now it is not fashion.
Luke Mackenzie, Basildon, Essex
Is a rise in the number of allergy sufferers simply related to the success of the medical profession diagnosing and treating such cases? Maybe there is a genetic link to an allergy whereby a child with a nut allergy, who would have died of a mysterious child illness 100 hundred years ago, is now diagnosed and able to survive pass on their genes.
Gary, London, UK
well, I'm fairly sure my hayfever is real - it came on suddenly when I was ten at a family barbecue having never suffered it before. I didn't know what was happening, or why no matter how much I rubbed or washed my eyes it still felt that there was something stuck under my eyelids.
As for the more lethal allergies, I suspect the reason we hear so much of them is that people who have them these days survive. A hundred years ago they'd just die in early childhood and we wouldn't know why.
Jez Lawrence, leeds uk
Obviously, Professor Jackson is one of those common individual without any allergies. If he had any, he would know how serious they are and instead of wasting his time on some frivilous social research, he would apply himself to the serious medical research that this subject deserves. In fact it is he and those that try to put every thing down to a social/cultural cause that has brought the bulk of the problems of todays society into the media spotlight and caused more problems than help. Not everything has a social/cultural cause. And what he is suggesting is similar to saying that auto accidents are caused because middle class people can all to readily afford cars. I think Professor Jackson needs to get a life and start pursuing some real valid research - if he is intelligent enough.
I would argue that the reverse is true for many allergy sufferers. Far from any sense of superiority there is the humiliation for sufferers that they either can't easily go out with friends to a restaurant or that they are just out to get sympathy. The worst demonstration of this is in health care provision because there is no definitive medical consensus about causes and best treatments. The patient is sometimes then seen as a nuisance. The Internet has helped people like me get help for their allergies to compensate for inadequate health advice. If Prof Jackson found allergies almost non-existent 100 years ago, I would suggest that one reason might be that the synthetic additives in foods nowadays did not exist back then.
Brian, London, UK
I'm amazed at the gullibility of people who almost want to cultivate allergies - those who go to crank food advisors (not qualified medics or nutritionalists) and come away thinking they have a wheat / peanut / dairy allergy. Invariably there is no change to any aspect of the person other than their depleted bank balance and a feeling of satisfaction that someone told them they had an allergy. Proper medical advice is often avoided by the gullible as GPs are not seen as appealing as cranky hippy New Age advisors.
JB, Winchester, UK
Interesting theory, especially in the light that people nowadays have allergies in families where there never was an allergy. In my case, my hay fever is passed on genetically, as my father, grandmother, & great-grand parent had it, despite the latter being a farmer!
Nadine, Luxembourg / UK
Allergies are not fashionable at all, they are an enduring and straining condition that people have to live with daily. Allergies are mainly down to the increased chemical content that we eat in our foods. That is why we have seen a rise in the last 50 years.
I am a hayfever sufferer, it makes my life a misery during the summer months and I would not wish it on anyone. I first developed the allergy in my earlier teens, when I knew nothing about "Fashionable diseases" or that having an allergy meant that you were cultured, so I would have to disagree most strongly with the comments made by Prof Jackson. He should spend his time trying to find the origin to this allergy epidemic rather than idle speculation.
Rob, Liverpool, UK
My mother is a "true" hayfever sufferer. Over the years she has been hospitalised because she cannot breathe - her face swells to the size of a house, her eyes have swelled shut and its been scary growing up with it. It now annoys me because a member of staff has taken the day off (leaving me with double the workload) because of a few sniffles and a runny nose. Hayfever seemes to be the biggest allergy these days and an "I've got to use my garden in a hot day", pull a sickie type of way! My youngest daughter has a milk allergy - and its no big deal!
Charlotte, Berkshire, UK
I found your article frustrating and unhelpful. Professor Jackson is implying that people with allergies are choosing to have them to seem special. As someone who can't eat dairy products or take aspirin or penicilin, I didn't choose to limit my diet, make eating out difficult or complicate my healthcare and I am offended by that implication.
Jane, Strrod, Kent
It's not very attractive to have the area around your eyes blown up so that you can hardly see to walk (let alone the hideous facial appearance this creates)when sitting in a grassy field or to find that after stroking a cat or walking down a busy street you can hardly breathe due to an asthma attack. Recently I was rushed to hospital after an anaphylactic response to an unknown allergen. Fashion didn't enter my head.
lionel previn, exeter
I agree with Prof. Durham's comments about children suffering from not being exposed to bacteria enough to develop a proper immune system. Although I am allergic to Penicillin, suffer from Asthma and am intollerant to dairy produce, I am honestly one of the healthiest people I know. I rarely get ill - I've taken 2 days max off sick in the last 3 years. I put this down to not taking medication for every sore throat or headache or cold, and growing up in the 80's when the world was not obsessed with disinfectant. Not sure how a penicillin allergy could be deemed a fashionable affectation? And what's so great about dairy intollerance? Have you ever tasted dairy free chocolate or cheese?
Rhona, Swindon, UK
Nobody's told my nose it's simply being a fashion victim - perhaps it's trying to impress all those cats and dogs with it's amazing sense of style
Charlie Stanhope, London
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