Mike Tringale, M.S.M., is senior vice president of External Affairs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Most of the talk over the last few decades about global climate change has focused on the health effects to big Mother Earth: rising temperatures, greenhouse gases, melting ice caps, elevated sea levels, coastal flooding, changing weather patterns, and more. Overshadowed by these macro effects are the micro—even personal—health effects that are happening right now to humans. Humans with allergies, that is.
There is a reason why RX allergy medications have become blockbusters and why the OTC allergy sprays, pills, drops, syrups, rinses, gels, swabs, and creams have become some of the top-selling products in the pharmacy aisle. Today, over 50 million American children and adults are living with mild, moderate, or severe allergies, including allergic rhinitis (also referred to as nasal allergies, seasonal allergies, or hay fever), insect allergies, and poison ivy/oak allergies. The prevalence was only estimated at half this number just 20 years ago, and the cause for the rapid rise in allergic disease has stymied the experts. Better diagnostics and better awareness can reasonably be considered contributing factors to the increase in the number of allergic patients, but they alone cannot account for the rise in allergy morbidity.
Researchers keep looking deeper and deeper at the epidemiology and pathophysiology of this chronic, autoimmune disease. Papers are full of studies about prenatal and early-infant immune exposure and development, the role of mast cells and basophils, the allergic antibody Immunoglobulin E (IgE), histamine and leukotriene chemical response mechanisms, genetic markers, and more. But we could just as easily exchange our microscopes for telescopes—and look upward, rather than inward—to help understand the rise in allergies.
In 2010 the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) issued the landmark report, Extreme Allergies and Global Warming. The report documented that higher temperatures in the United States between 1990 and 2006 have already resulted in shorter winters (i.e., longer growing seasons), proliferation of habitats for poison ivy and oak as well as for certain trees, grasses and weeds, increased concentrations of airborne pollen, and wider migration of venomous ants, bees, roaches, and dust mites. Likewise, AAFA recently released its 11th annual report, 2013 Fall Allergy Capitals, which ranks 100 U.S. cities based on a variety of factors including prevalence, pollen, and patient utilization of RX and OTC allergy medications. The report shows that cities we usually associate with dry, desert climates like Albuquerque (#82), Phoenix (#72), and Las Vegas (#70) were ranked above green and pollen-rich places like Portland (#100), Raleigh (#85), and Washington, D.C. (#83). In other words: more allergy triggers in more places more days each year.
With no end or solution in sight for climate change, it’s increasingly clear that allergies will continue to rise. As the patient population continues to swell and fill the pharmacy isles demanding more and better treatment options, the entire pharmaceutical community—scientists, manufacturers, clinicians, and retailers—will undoubtedly be affected, too.
While you’re out this autumn—enjoying hay rides, venturing through corn mazes, trick-or-treating along leaf-lined streets—be prepared for expected or unexpected seasonal allergies.