Allergies Are About to Get a Lot Worse

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Allergies Are About to Get a Lot Worse
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Allergies Are About to Get a Lot Worse

Spring is here from coast to coast, bringing glorious flowers, sweet smells, and fluttering hearts. It’s a perfect paradise of pleasures. Except for the pollen.

Each and every one of those glorious flowers also packs pollen, the dark underside of spring. It’s the stuff that causes sneezing, itchy, runny eyes, and a nose like a faucet.  About 20% of people in the U.S. are allergic (though I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have allergies) and so suffer through the spring or fall or winter or summer or all of the above.

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Complaining about allergies actually has become a standard pastime, along with related topics: which almost completely worthless antihistamine works this year and how much it costs and whether your sniffles are worse in May when blossoms appear or autumn when leaves color then crumble and fall. (Though in keeping with the American obsession for these things May is designated as Allergy & Asthma Awareness Month).

Behind the mundane complaining for its own sake, though, a new problem affecting allergies may be brewing: global warming. There are many who think that global warming will make all of us into allergic snifflers, sneezers, and a generally miserable, pinched, and nasal people.

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But before getting to the evidence connecting global warming to worsening allergies, there are several important facts to consider. First, independent of the warming of Earth, Western societies are more allergic to various things—peanuts, bees, pollen, food—than we used to be. Many have conjectured as to why this might be: perhaps we are over-vaccinated or under-vaccinated; have not had enough infections or exposure to dirt and dreck; or don’t live on the farm anymore so exposure to the farm (confer, “hay” fever, et al) makes us sneeze and hack.

It gets to the central irony of what allergies really are. We have a wondrous immune system capable of defending us from all manner of infection and threat, yet once in a while it overreacts and misreads a little nothing as a major danger. Allergies—sniffles and sneezes and itches—derive from the irrational exuberance of the immune system, a misalignment between threat (tiny) and reaction (mega). The immune system, in other words, makes a big effing deal out of a little nothing, and we suffer the consequences. That’s why steroids, which dampen the immune response, are so effective in treatment. Our immune systems need to learn to modulate our response a trifle: In this realm, one can be too rich, too thin, and too energetic.

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Or perhaps all this allergy business is just that: a business. After all, allergies and their remedy are big-ticket items. Many sniffle and wheeze antidotes are in the list of the 100 most frequently prescribed medications in 2013.  One of them, Nasonex (which I never have prescribed, recommended, or used), was dispensed 8,144,373 times, placing it in 17th place, one notch in front of Viagra (7,671,000 scripts). And, Zyrtec, an antihistamine, was the highest grossing nonfood of 2008, coming in at $316 million in sales.

All told, “allergic rhinitis” (hay fever) costs about $11.2 billion a year (PDF) in medical costs in the U.S.—not counting lost productivity and all that. That’s not just a disease, that’s a market opportunity.

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Or maybe we are just whiny wimps, an all-purpose explanation for every descent-of-man phenomenon that never is far off the mark. But no matter, we are allergic and getting more allergic, hear us roar (and sniffle and whine and hack).

It looks like we will be roaring even more in the years ahead as global warming makes Antarctica into the next super-cool beach vacation place (tan 23 hours a day all “winter” long with the South Pole’s special Midnight Sun vacation package!). Because as we warm up, more pollen-producing plants will sprout and flower and spread their noxious seed (aka pollen) into the wind.  So get ready.

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The National Wildlife Federation has written up a very compelling case linking our runny noses and our warming planet. (Please note that I made a contribution after reading the tract, i.e., I too am a hug-a-whale sort of guy.) Some of their observations are obvious: Spring will come earlier and plants producing major pollen will march ever more toward the poles, North and South.

Some are less obvious. For example, the increase in carbon dioxide levels—a measureable and very concerning aspect of global warming—will give the plants exactly what they want to respire. As everyone remembers from Biology 101, the flora and we are in an amazing yin and yang: we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide whereas plants live of off carbon dioxide and spit out oxygen. The higher levels of carbon dioxide will induce something of a feeding frenzy for plants, at least for a while. They will grow and spread, not only tipping the fauna-flora balance out of whack, but also making this an even more pollen-riddled planet.

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It’s all a topsy-turvy mess. Flowers and warmth, once the object of our affection, have now become the bad guy. Bitter cold and blinding snow, so reviled for centuries, are embraced as reassuring evidence that the old order persists at least a little. And our immune system, admirable and dedicated protector of our health, is making us sneeze our brains out.

Sigh—even our biology has turned ironic.

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