Stress Can Make Allergy Symptoms Go Haywire & What That Could Mean for Beijing Athletes

  • A new study out of Ohio State University announced at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association found that being stress could make allergy symptoms worse... even into the next day.


    Now, let me just say that this study only included 28 people, so it's not exactly a ground-breaker (the fewer the people involved in a study, the less useful the study results tend to be). Still, it does present some interesting data that I hope will be followed up in more detail in the future. Because there's not too many of us who don't have a fair amount of stress in our lives. And if that's making my allergies worse, I'd sure like to know, wouldn't you?

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    Here are the study highlights:

    • 28 men and women participated in the study
    • Data was collected via questionnaire, skin prick tests, and blood, serum, and saliva samples
    • Study took place over two half-days
    • To induce stress, participants were asked to make a videotaped 10-minute speech in front of evaluators and then answer several math questions without pencil and paper
    • Site of the skin prick tests was measured before and after the stressful experiment
    • People who experienced moderate to high levels of stress had larger welts at the skin prick site
    • These people were also 4 times more likely to have a skin reaction the day after the stressful event

    What We Can Take From This Study


    Stress may trigger or increase the allergic response. Late-phase reactions may signal an ongoing and strengthening response to allergens and can be intensified by stress. That is disturbing because these delayed reactions often don't respond well (or at all) to treatment. Researchers suggest that certain chemical changes in the immune system that last long after the initial exposure to stress may be responsible for the late-phase reaction.


    I know I've experienced these delayed reactions the day after an allergy attack that seemed to come out of nowhere. I'd thought I'd dealt with the symptoms the day before and resolved them... and then they return with a vengeance. Has that ever happened to you? Now, I'm wondering if stress may have been a factor at all, given the fact that I have a high level of stress in my life a lot of the time. Interesting...


    If you have allergies and you experience a particularly stressful event, you might monitor your allergy symptoms closely that day and the day after. Be prepared to treat the symptoms with an antihistamine (or a fast-acting bronchodilator for those with allergic asthma).


    Some Other Relevant Statistics About Allergy

    • 20% of adults and 40% of kids have allergies
    • 38% of people who have nasal allergies also have asthma
    • 78% of people who have asthma also have nasal allergies
    • Allergic reactions cost more than $3 billion to treat each year in the U.S.
    • 3.5 million workdays are lost to allergies each year

    Those are pretty sobering statistics, aren't they?


    How This Might Relate to the Olympic Athletes

    This next part is pure conjecture on my part. But it is based on my medical knowledge, as well as the results of this study. Air quality -- due to high levels of vehicle exhaust from heavy traffic -- is awful in Beijing, where the 2008 Summer Olympics are being held. That's a fact. And poor air quality is often a powerful trigger for both nasal allergies and asthma. Since such a large portion of our population has asthma and allergies, then we also know that many of the elite Olympic athletes are going to be suffering from symptoms, given the air quality they're exposed to in Beijing. This will be especially difficult for athletes who must compete outdoors, such as track & field competitors and bicyclists.


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    Add to that the extreme stress of competing at an elite athletic level and it's truly a wonder that we're seeing such stellar performances at this year's Olympics, isn't it? Of course, not everyone is doing as well as expected, and there could be many reasons for that. But it does give me pause to wonder if the connection between stress and allergies is a factor at all.


    Tips for the Rest of Us

    For parents of kids with allergies and asthma, this is something to keep in mind as well. If your child plays sports, it would be wise to promote the "fun" aspects of athletics, rather than increasing your child's stress level by emphasizing performance and achievement. Chances are, your child will enjoy it more and may even stay healthier!

Published On: August 20, 2008