TIME Environment

Pollutants Created by Climate Change Are Making Airborne Allergens More Potent

Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on January 22, 2015 in Jilin, Jilin province of China.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on Jan. 22, 2015, in Jilin, China

It could explain why more people are suffering from year to year

If you think your seasonal sneezing, wheezing and sniffling is getting worse, you aren’t simply imagining it.

Currently, some 50 million or so Americans suffer from nasal allergies, but the number is going up, and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany say a pair of pollutants linked to climate change could be to blame. That’s according to a report in Science Daily.

The two gases are nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone, which appear to set off chemical changes in some airborne allergens, increasing their potency.

“Scientists have long suspected that air pollution and climate change are involved in the increasing prevalence of allergies worldwide,” said the institute’s Ulrich Pöschl. “Our research is just a starting point, but it does begin to suggest how chemical modifications in allergenic proteins occur and how they may affect allergenicity.”

Pöschl’s team found that ozone (a major component of smog) oxidizes an amino acid that sets off chemical reactions that ultimately alter an allergenic protein’s structure. Meanwhile, nitrogen dioxide (found in car exhausts) appears to alter the separation and binding capabilities of certain allergens.

Researchers believe that together, the two gases make allergens more likely to trigger the body’s immune response, especially in wet, humid and smoggy conditions.

The team hopes to identify other allergenic proteins that are modified in the environment and examine how these affect the human immune system.

[Science Daily]

TIME medicine

The Surprising Way to Treat Peanut Allergies

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In a breakthrough study, researchers show that it’s not only possible to tamp down allergic reactions to peanuts, but by eating small amounts of them infants can avoid getting allergic in the first place

More studies hint that it’s possible to “train” the immune system to tolerate peanuts even if it doesn’t want to by giving children with peanut allergies small amounts of peanuts over a period of time. But researchers now report that it may be possible to prevent peanut allergies altogether. In a study published Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers led by Gideon Lack, a professor of pediatric allergy at King’s College London and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital, found that non-allergic young infants who ate small amounts of peanuts at an early age had a much lower rate of peanut allergy than those who avoided nuts altogether for five years.

MORE This ‘Peanut Patch’ Could Protect Against Peanut Allergies

“We are actually preventing the immune response from going along a pathway that leads to clinical reactivity, and it’s like, wow,” says Dr. Rebecca Gruchalla, professor of medicine and pediatrics at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who wrote an accompanying editorial. “It’s pretty cool to actually divert and keep the immune system from developing along a pathway that we don’t want it to go.”

Lack and his senior co-investigator George Du Toit, a pediatric allergy consultant at the College, conducted their study on 640 infants with severe eczema or egg allergy. These babies were chosen because of their increased risk of developing other food allergies, including to peanuts, and were enrolled when they were between four months and 11 months old. That’s an important window of opportunity, says Lack, to intervene and retrain the immune system to become tolerant to peanuts.

MORE The Bacteria That May One Day Cure Food Allergies

The group was divided into babies who showed a positive skin prick test to peanuts, and another who were negative. Each group was then randomly divided into those who were given to small amounts of peanuts to eat and those who were told to avoid it for five years. (Those with positive skin tests were given smaller amounts in gradually increasing doses if they could safely tolerate them, while those who were negative for peanut allergies were given larger doses.) Because the babies started out with varying levels of egg allergy and eczema, they also had differing levels of antibodies against peanuts; some had higher levels indicating they were already on the path toward developing allergic reactions to peanuts, even if they hadn’t tested positive and weren’t already allergic.

What’s noteworthy about the findings are that all groups that ate the peanuts, regardless of how far along they were toward developing peanut allergies, showed lower rates of peanut allergy when they were 5 compared to the babies who didn’t eat peanuts at all. The fact that even babies who were negative for peanut allergies at the start of the study, but who might go on to develop them, could prevent the allergy is a potentially game-changing idea.

“In primary prevention we can halt the process before the disease starts,” says Lack. “In secondary prevention, in the babies who already were positive for peanut allergy, the ball is already rolling downhill, but we can still prevent it, and push it back up the hill. We showed both primary prevention and secondary prevention were effective.” Overall, only 2% of the babies who ate peanuts were allergic to peanuts when they were 5, compared to nearly 14% of those who didn’t eat any peanuts during that time. For those who were already positive for peanut allergies at the start of the study, nearly 11% of those who ate small amounts of peanuts ended up getting a peanut allergy compared to 35% of those who avoided them.

MORE Why We’re Going Nuts Over Nut Allergies

It’s not clear how long the protection from peanut allergies lasts; other studies that used similar food exposure strategies in children with egg and milk allergies showed that as soon as the exposure to the allergy-causing food was stopped, the tolerance waned and the allergic reaction returned. Lack and his colleagues are continuing their study by asking all of the participants to avoid eating peanuts for one year and then giving them peanuts to see whether the peanut-consuming group remain non-allergic. “That will tell us whether we truly prevented peanut allergy in the long run or just put the brake on the development of peanut allergy,” he says.

Whether the approach will work on other food allergies, or even other allergies to cats, dogs or pollen, isn’t clear. Lack and his team have not, for example, fully analyzed the data on whether the peanuts helped the babies’ eczema or egg allergies to abate. But the results hint that the immune response may be redirected, at least for some allergens, toward a non-allergic response.

MORE Can Peanut Allergies Develop in the Womb?

It also hints that the rise in peanut allergies, especially in the U.S., may be in part of our own making. For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), for example, advised parents to avoid giving their babies peanuts in order to protect them from develop allergic reactions. Mothers-to-be were even advised to avoid eating peanuts during pregnancy to reduce their babies’ chances of becoming allergic. But recent studies in animals show that the immune system’s response to things like peanuts, egg, milk and other allergens may be a balance between exposure through the gut and exposure through the skin. Skin exposure tends to trigger aggressive immune responses that treat most new objects, including peanut protein, as foreign, and therefore sensitizes the body to recognize the food as foreign and dangerous. Eating such proteins, on the other hand, presents them in a different way to the immune system that recognizes their nutritious value. When these two routes are in balance, the gut-based system overrides the skin-based signals and the body sees peanuts as friend rather than foe.

But if babies aren’t eating peanuts, then the signals about peanut proteins entering via the skin become dominant, and nuts become an unwanted intruder rather than a welcome source of food. That’s why, for example, Lack and others believe that rates of peanut allergy are higher in countries like the U.S. where parents have been advised to avoid feeding their babies peanuts, compared to countries like Israel, where infants are given peanuts early on.

Based on recent findings, the AAP in 2008 changed its advice and now does not say parents should avoid feeding their babies peanuts. They haven’t concluded yet whether giving peanuts to infants early in life is a better choice, but given their latest data, Lack ,Du Toit and Gruchalla believe that it’s something that parents should discuss with their pediatricians and allergy specialists. We recommend that peanut be introduced very early on once weaning has been established,” says Du Toit. “Our study demonstrated that it’s safe as long as whole nuts are avoided for their choking hazard.” For children who come from families with no history of food allergies and whose parents or siblings don’t have other food allergies, peanuts can be started right away. For those who have a family history of food reactions, parents should consult with an allergist to get a skin prick test and then work with the specialist to determine the safest way to gradually introduce peanuts into their babies’ diet.

Such exposure to possible food allergens “is not part of clinical practice yet, but I think it will be likely that there are going to be experts who are going to get together and revise the guidelines to make it more common,” says Gruchalla. And hopefully lower rates of food allergies in coming years.

Read next: New Guidelines Help Doctors Diagnose Food Allergy

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Research

This ‘Peanut Patch’ Could Protect Against Peanut Allergies

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Half of those who used the largest patch saw their peanut tolerance increase 10-fold

A small skin patch applied to patients with peanut allergies appears to safely and effectively protect against the sometimes life-threatening condition, researchers said Sunday

“This is exciting news for families who suffer with peanut allergies because Viaskin represents a new treatment option for patients and physicians,” study author Hugh A. Sampson, a doctor at Kravis Children’s Hospital at Mount Sinai, said in a statement.

The patch exposed patients to a small dose of peanut protein, ranging from 50 to 250 micrograms, for the course of the study. The study, which evaluated more than 200 patients with peanut allergies for a year, found that the treatment worked, particularly for patients who used the 250-microgram patch. Half of those who used the largest patch saw their peanut tolerance increase 10-fold. Tolerance increased 19-fold for some children treated with the 250-microgram patch.

The researchers, who presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, reported no serious side effects to the treatment.

“EPIT appears safe, well tolerated and effective,” Sampson said. “That’s good news for families who suffer from food allergies.”

Read next: 5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Gluten

TIME Research

Why Washing Dishes by Hand May Lead to Fewer Allergies

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A new study shows kids in families who hand-wash their dishes have fewer allergies

Households worldwide now have extra incentive for getting family members to do the dishes: It could prevent the development of allergies.

A new and preliminary study, published in the journal Pediatrics, adds to an increasing body of evidence that suggests getting a little dirty does the immune system some good. That thinking is known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” which speculates that the reason kids develop so many allergies today is because their environments are just too clean. Without exposure to bacteria early in life, children’s immune systems don’t become as hardy as they could be.

Research over the years has linked a variety of early lifestyle factors, like having pets, eating fish and living on a farm to a significantly lower risk of developing allergies. Now this new study suggests that hand washing dishes might be the next behavior to add to the list.

“If you are exposed to microbes, especially early in life, you stimulate the immune system in various ways and it becomes tolerant,” says study author Dr. Bill Hesselmar of Queen Silvia Children’s Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. “We thought [hand washing dishes] might be important, but we didn’t know, so we asked that question.”

Hesselmar and his team surveyed the parents and guardians of 1,029 Swedish children ages 7 to 8. They discovered that children in homes where the family hand-washed the dishes instead of using a machine were less likely to have allergies. Only 23% of children whose parents used hand dishwashing had a history of eczema, compared with 38% of kids whose families mainly used machine dishwashing. The researchers also found that the result was amplified when kids ate fermented food or food bought directly from farms.

Though the study is only observational and can’t confirm causality, Hesselmar and his team have a few speculations.

It’s not necessarily that the kids are washing the dishes themselves and becoming exposed to bacteria. That might be one form of exposure, but as Hesselmar notes, some of the kids might be too young for that chore. Instead, it could be that long-term use of hand-washed dishes does the trick. Prior research comparing the cleanliness of dishes washed by hand to those washed by machine has shown that machine washing is more efficient and leaves fewer bacteria behind. Living in a household that hand-washes means family members are eating off of plates and cutlery that have more bacteria, and therefore more microbial exposure.

Families who hand-wash may also have other lifestyle factors that contribute to a lower allergy risk. The researchers note that overcrowded housing, low socioeconomic status and immigration status can also be linked to fewer allergies, as well as possibly different modes of dish washing.

“The study was really well done and caveated well, while simultaneously suggesting new areas of research and interesting models,” says Jonathan A. Eisen, a professor at the University of California at Davis. Eisen, who was not involved in the study, is an expert on exposure to microbial communities.

The study still leaves a few questions unanswered, like why hand washing was only associated with a lower likelihood of eczema and not other allergy-related symptoms like asthma, or why the effect was so significant even though dish washing requires the use of soaps, possibly even antibacterial products. Hesselmar says they are asking the same questions and hope to continue looking into the link.

Read next: This ‘Peanut Patch’ Could Protect Against Peanut Allergies

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Researchers Claim Breakthrough in Treating Peanut Allergies

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A daily combination of peanut protein and a probiotic helped 80% of children in a study

Researchers say they are one step closer to finding a cure for people with severe peanut allergies.

Around 80% of a group of 30 children had no allergic reaction to peanuts after scientists gave them a daily combination of peanut protein and a probiotic in increasing amounts over an 18-month period, according to a new study announced Wednesday.

The probiotic, bacteria useful in fighting disease, deployed by the Melbourne, Australia-based Murdoch Childrens Research Institute was Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Its dosage in the study was the equivalent of eating 20 kg of yogurt a day.

“Many of the children and families believe it has changed their lives, they’re very happy, they feel relieved,” lead researcher Mimi Tang told the Guardian. “These findings provide the first vital step towards developing a cure for peanut allergy and possibly other food allergies.”

Tang cautioned against attempting the study at home, as some children in the study did still have serious allergic reactions. A follow-up study will test whether the peanut tolerance continues in the future.

[The Guardian]

TIME Research

Study Questions Link Between Asthma and City Living

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Poverty may be the greater factor as we spend more time inside

Research has long connected living in urban areas with a high risk for asthma. And it makes sense: Cities are polluted and pollution exposure is linked to a greater risk for asthma.

That’s why a new study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, is so surprising. The findings, which come from a study of 23,000 U.S. children, show that income and race are much greater risk factors for asthma than where a child lives. The greatest predictors of asthma risk, according to this research, are poverty and being African American or Puerto Rican.

“We didn’t go in looking to make this point at all,” says lead study author Dr. Corinne Keet, an assistant professor of pediatrics at John’s Hopkins Children’s Center. “We were somewhat surprised to find that living in a city didn’t seem to be a risk factor for asthma.”

To reach these findings, the researchers looked at data from 23,065 children, ages 6 to 17, who were part of the 2009-2011 National Health Interview Survey, and calculated the prevalence of asthma among the group. Their results showed that the prevalence of asthma among inner-city children was 12.9%, and 10.6% in non-inner city neighborhoods. But when the researchers accounted for race, ethnicity, geographic areas, sex and age, it was no longer significant.

Keet says she thought of looking into this while writing a grant proposal. She wanted to toss in a line about how inner-city children have more asthma, and couldn’t find the nation-wide evidence to back it up. She enlisted Dr. Elizabeth Matsui, another Johns Hopkins professor of pediatrics who has done several studies looking at the link between urban living and asthma. Keet learned from Matsui, who is a senior author of the study, that studies making the connection have primarily looked at individual cities, and that there was very little data looking at the effect nationwide.

The new findings still support pollution as a cause for asthma, but it suggests that indoor pollution may be doing more of the harm.

“A lot of what may make a difference is what happens inside the home than outside the home, especially as we spend so much time indoors these days,” says Keet. Allergen exposure from old housing materials, cockroaches and mice, mold pollution, cleaning supplies, and tobacco smoke may be heavy contributors.

Keet says other factors, like being born prematurely and second-hand smoke exposure, are also associated with both poverty and asthma. In addition, stress has been fingered as a possible contributor to asthma risk, and poverty is certainly a stressor for many families. When it comes to the race connection, Keet cites some research that has found genetic factors, especially among African ancestry, that’s associated with a greater risk. However, it’s very difficult to disentangle the genetics from the effects of other factors like socioeconomic status.

“[The study] turns 50 years of hypothesizing on its head,” says Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who was not involved in this study. “It seemed to follow logically that pollution in urban areas would contribute to asthma more so than in rural areas. I am more surprised by the rural numbers. But any young child who would have any wheezing episode should be seen and evaluated since pediatric asthma is not uncommon.”

It’s important to note that the new study was designed to look at overall prevalence of asthma, and not at the severity of a child’s asthma is. The researchers are already embarking on another study that looks at hospital and emergency room visits associated with asthma. Keet says they suspect that urban living may indeed exacerbate asthma.

“I think the takeaway is for policy makers — making sure we are not ignoring these pockets outside of cities,” says Keet. “A lot of work with great results has focused on children living in cities, and we just need to make sure we are not forgetting anyone else.”

TIME allergies

Why More Schools Should Stock Emergency EpiPens

It took the death of a student to change a school district

Schools that stockpile emergency epinephrine—like EpiPens—can save the lives of students with food allergies. One city seeing success with their stockpile is Chicago, found a new study presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting.

In 2010, a seventh grade Chicago girl died after having an allergic reaction to Chinese food brought into the school. The school had no EpiPens on site, and the girl died at the hospital. The incident shook the school district into transformation, and Chicago’s school district is now one of the first among large urban centers to implement formal policies on epinephrine stocks.

The new study looked at emergency stocks of epinephrin in Chicago Public Schools during the 2012-13 school year for severe anaphylactic emergencies. Emergency epinephrine was used on 38 children and adults for the academic year.

“I was definitely surprised by that number,” says study author Dr. Ruchi Gupta of Northwestern University. “We found that over 50% of those kids had no known allergy. A lot of the younger kids may be trying foods for the first time. That is something we do worry about.”

MORE: The Bacteria That May One Day Cure Food Allergies

Food allergies among children appear to be rising, and currently about 1 out of every 13 children has a food allergy. That’s about two kids per classroom.

In Gupta’s study, the majority of the reactions occurred in grade schools, but about 37% happened in high schools. The most common allergens were peanuts and fin fish, like salmon or tuna, but the causes of about 34% of the reactions were unknown. In 76% of the reactions, a nurse administered epinephrine.

Currently 41 states have laws regulating the stock of epinephrine—an imperative that’s needed across the country, the study authors say.

TIME Research

Sleeping On Animal Fur Can Lower Asthma Risk

Study says sleeping on animal fur is associated with a lower risk of asthma in infants

Animal fur might be protective against asthma and allergies, a new study finds.

The research, just presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress, examined data from 2,441 German children and found an association between sleeping on animal fur, like sheepskin rugs or throws, during their first three months and a decreased risk of asthma later in childhood, by age 10. Snoozing on fur was also associated with a lower risk of hay fever and wheezing.

Using animal fur as bedding was a common practice in Germany during the 1990s when the data was collected—about 55% of the children examined had slept on animal fur. Sheepskin is among the most popular kind, said lead study author Christina Tischer of the German Research Center for Environmental Health in an email.

The fur rugs aren’t typically treated with pesticides or strong chemical agents, she said. “We think that this animal fur might act as a reservoir for diverse kind of microbial components which [accumulate] over time within the animal fur,” she wrote.

Other studies have shown that diverse microbial environments seem to be protective against allergies, supporting the “hygiene hypothesis” that our hypersanitized lives weaken our defenses by not exposing them to enough bacteria to build proper immunity. The live kind may work, too. If you don’t have a spare bear rug in which to swaddle your infant, other studies have shown that infant exposure to pets might make infants less prone to allergies.

TIME Research

Study: Pesticides Could Cause Unexpected Allergic Reactions

New regulations could stem the risk

Traces of antibiotic pesticides in fruits and vegetables may trigger unexpected allergic reactions for people with food allergies, according to a new study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

“As far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides,” said lead study author Anne Des Roches in a press release.

The study looked at a patient who suffered from anaphylactic shock after eating a blueberry pie, despite not being allergic to any of the ingredients. After weeks of testing with both the patient and a sample of the pie, researchers concluded that the pesticide streptomycin, which is used in orchards, had triggered the reaction.

The use of such pesticides remains legal in the United States, though new Food and Drug Administration regulations may help address the issue, according to the study. The pesticides are illegal in some European countries, Roches said.

TIME allergies

The Hair Dye Allergy You Should Know About

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Marc Vuillermoz—Getty Images/Onoky

Not a natural blonde or brunette? You might want to be more cautious about coloring your hair. Turns out some people can be extremely allergic to hair dye, as NCIS star Pauley Perrette found out last week when she landed in the hospital with a severe reaction to the stuff.

“Was in ER. Just got home from hospital. Awful. My head swelled up huge like a melon,” Perrette tweeted after posting a photo of her swollen face. Now the star is urging others to read up on hair dye allergies themselves.

“The most important thing to me is that anyone out there that dyes their hair, particularly black, you need to be aware of the symptoms,” she told a local CBS station in Los Angeles.

The actress, who’s a natural blonde, had been dyeing her locks jet black for more than 20 years without incident. Then about six months ago, she developed a rash on her neck and scalp which got worse with every coloring.

Health.com: 16 Hair Myths You Need to Stop Believing

An allergy to hair dye is quite rare, affecting about one in 250,000 people, says Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and author of Skin Rules. Still, it can prove to be just as serious as a nut or shellfish allergy, especially if you’re someone who’s prone to allergic reactions. And while some people may see symptoms the first or second time they use hair dye, it may not happen as fast as you think.

“To be allergic to something, usually your immune system has to come in contact with it and decide it doesn’t like it,” Dr. Jaliman says. “Depending on how sensitive your system is, the allergy may develop more slowly than others.”

That means if you start to see signs of redness, swelling, itching, or burning after several uses of hair dye, don’t write it off. This is your body’s way of telling you an allergy is building up, and continuing to use the dye could actually be fatal. “If you develop a severe allergy, you could get blisters and hives and, though rare, difficulty breathing similar to an anaphylactic reaction,” Dr. Jaliman says. See an allergist or a dermatologist for advice on how to treat your allergy, whether that’s with topical creams or pills like antihistamines.

Health.com:11 Secret Allergy Triggers

If you’re allergic to hair dye, you can blame a chemical called paraphenylenediamine or PPD for your symptoms, Dr. Jaliman says. It’s in most commercial dyes you’d find at both drugstores or hair salons and it helps protect color from fading. Though Perrette called out black dye as being worse than others, you could get a reaction no matter the shade you’re using—or the original color of your hair, Dr. Jaliman says.

If you’re going to dye your hair for the first time, there’s an easy way to tell if you may be allergic. Before coloring your hair, do a skin patch test, typically recommended on most boxed hair color. Basically, you put a bit of dye on your skin and wait 48 hours to see if a reaction develops. If you pass the first time, it’s likely you’re in the clear whether you color at home or the salon, Dr. Jaliman says, and you shouldn’t need to do the test again.

If you do develop an allergy, there are other ways to color your locks safely. Dyes like henna or the line from EcoColors are great natural and non-toxic solutions, she says. Even highlights could be better for you as most use bleach and don’t add color, Dr. Jaliman says. Ask your colorist what formula would be used on your hair.

Health.com: 20 Ways to Stop Allergies

One thing’s for sure: even a mild reaction to hair dye could turn serious. “I wouldn’t be looking into putting chemicals in your hair if you have a history of allergies,” Dr. Jaliman says. “It would probably be best to switch to a chemical-free dye because you don’t want it to escalate into a life-threatening situation.” As for Perrette, she says she’s going to look into natural dyes or wigs.

The Hair Dye Allergy You Need to Know About originally appeared on Health.com.

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