If you suffer from respiratory allergies such as hayfever I'm sure you know that symptoms aren't limited to the obvious sneezing, itching, runny nose and watering eyes. Of course these are very annoying and often distressing but what those who don't have allergies don't realise is that mood disturbances such as depression, irritability and insomnia are also a common result of allergic reactions and can be equally or more distressing than the obvious allergy symptoms.
A new study publicized this week looked at just this issue as well as investigating the perceptions that people have about allergies. The researchers interviewed over 1000 allergy sufferers and non-sufferers as well as 300 doctors.
Around 62% of allergy sufferers reported that allergies affected their mood with 51% of sufferers feeling annoyed or angry, 48% irritable and 42% left with a feeling of frustration. The study also revealed that allergies affect self-image with 22% of sufferers saying that their allergies made them feel less attractive and 19% more self-conscious.
Despite how severe allergic reactions and accompanying mood related symptoms can be it seems that the majority of people see allergies as a nuisance rather than a serious illness. The study revealed that 81% of participants viewed diabetes, hypertension or high blood pressure and arthritis as more serious than respiratory allergies to both indoor and outdoor allergens. While acknowledging that these conditions can lead to serious problems, if they are managed properly many sufferers can live free from symptoms. Do people therefore think more about potential long-term consequences than the amount of suffering experienced when evaluating the seriousness of an illness?
It was also found that 48% of allergy sufferers feel their spouse or significant other do not view their allergies as a serious health concern. Additionally, while 78% of the people asked said they feel sorry for those who have allergies, 36% believed that allergy sufferers exaggerate the severity of their symptoms and 30% thought sufferers use them as an excuse to get out of things. I guess this is just human nature; if we haven't directly experienced something for ourselves we can't really understand and tend to be sceptical. It's a good indicator however that perhaps more should be done to educate people about just how distressing and disabling allergies can be.
The final finding of the study is more positive with 84% of doctors saying that in general they felt that patients do not overstate allergy symptoms. So at least allergy sufferers can feel confident that their doctor at least recognises the severity of their suffering.
I myself have had first-hand experience of just how severely allergies can affect people. A couple of years after I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) I developed hayfever. This was around the age of 13. I remember many occassions taking important exams in the summer while having awful hayfever symptoms. I had a pocket full of tissues, cough/cold sweets and various other remedies but still had to battle through exams sneezing, struggling to breathe and rubbing itchy eyes and nose. Not only that but my concentration and mood were also affected which doesn't help exam performance. In the UK where I live the majority of hayfever occurs in the summer so you'd think with so many kids suffering from the condition the education authorities might find a better time of year for exams!
My general health deteriorated throughout my teens and this is when I really started to suffer mentally in the summer due to hayfever. After a week or two of sneezing and typical allergy symptoms I would start to feel extremely irritable and restless, I'd snap at people, I suffered from insomnia and my thinking was very fuzzy. As the hayfever season progressed I also developed terrible sore throats, coughs, abdominal pain and generally felt sick all over as if I had flu. For those of us who are unable to take medications such as anti-histamines it can be very difficult to avoid such symptoms.
None of this is particularly surprising (especially for people suffering from CFS or other chronic illness) once you have a basic understanding of the chemicals released during allergic reactions and the effects they have on various parts of the body.
The most well known of these is histamine. Histamine is released by special immune cells (mast cells) during allergic reactions and is responsible for most of the classical allergy symptoms due to its inflammatory effects. It's less well known however that histamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger in the brain and nervous system.) Specifically it is an 'excitory' neurotransmitter which means it promotes wakefullness. It is no wonder then that people particularly sensitive to its effects might experience symptoms such as insomnia and irritability since the brain is essentially being overstimulated by the chemical. Just like too many cups of coffee keep you awake and might make you irritable, so too can histamine have these effects. Certain receptors for histamine also interfere with the release of other neurotransmitters such as serotonin and noradrenaline (a.k.a. norepinephrine). These are intimately involved with depressive disorders so there is potential for histamine to cause mood related symptoms through this mechanism. In fact drug companies are investigating histamine as a target for antidepressant drugs and it is known that existing antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs actually lower histamine in the brain.
Various other chemicals known collectively as cytokines are also released during allergic reactions and these affect the function of both the immune and nervous systems.
I am fortunate in that my allergies are seasonal; for those with year round allergies things must be very hard indeed.
So when people make light of allergies be sure to point out just how seriously they can affect sufferers with both physical and mental symptoms!