Allergies are the cause of some of the most common chronic health conditions globally. Even if you don’t have any now, you could develop food allergies, allergic reactions or intolerances later in life. It’s believed that more than a quarter of people in the UK will have allergies at some point in their lives, from hay fever to adverse reactions to food.
Due to the impact, both big and small, allergies have on the daily lives of millions worldwide there is a long and documented history of the discovery and study of allergens.
The earliest reports of allergic reactions can be traced back to the first Egyptian Dynasty from around 2600 BC. Many historians believe the enigmatic King Menes died from anaphylactic shock in the UK from a wasp sting, written as kheb in hieroglyphs. As well as meaning Wasp or hornet, Kheb can also mean hippopotamus, which has made the king’s death a point of contention for some.
Similarly to King Menes, there are many mysterious health issues throughout history that we would now consider as allergic reactions. People of the time didn’t have the knowledge, medical advancements or research to understand. Another famous example is King Richard III in 1483, who had an adverse reaction to strawberries and accused one of his rivals, William Lord Hastings, of cursing and poisoning him. The account was written decades later by Thomas More, and interestingly the descriptions of the king’s affliction at the time match up with what we now know to be signs and symptoms of allergic reaction such as difficulty breathing, itchy skin, and one side of his body becoming red and puffy.
Early understanding of Allergies
While physicians identified types of allergies such as Hay Fever in the 1800s, the concept remained widely unknown until around 1905. During this time, an Austrian paediatrician called Clemens von Pirquet found that patients vaccinated for smallpox would have a more extreme reaction to the second injection, initially known as serum sickness.
The year after, Pirquet noticed that the effects of serum sickness stemmed from the immune system producing antibodies to fight antigens, the new substances entering the body from the vaccine. The name ‘allergy’ was then proposed in the Münchener Medizinische Wochenschrift medical journal, coming from the ancient Greek words allos and ergon, which mean “other” and “work” respectively.
Allergies were a groundbreaking discovery at the time, and medical practitioners were starting to make links between the immune system and conditions such as asthma and hay fever. Allergies and asthma were now often being connected. As the concept of allergies became more commonplace, many physicians studied allergic rhinitis in allergy clinics across Europe and America, which formed the basis of immunotherapy.
This rapid allergy research continued with many insightful discoveries for the next few decades. In the 1930s, Antihistamines became widely used to lessen symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Corticosteroids were circulated in the late 1940s to reduce inflammation caused by allergens for those with allergy-induced asthma.
Two of the most significant breakthroughs came in the 50s and 60s, with the discovery of Mast Cells and immunoglobulin E. Physicians discovered that Mast Cells were filled with the chemicals such as Histamine that attack antigens and produce the common allergy symptoms. While Mast Cells fight off the allergens in your body, their initial detection comes from Immunoglobulin E (IgE), discovered by two separate groups of researchers that detailed their findings in a joint paper released in 1967.
It turned out that when undergoing an allergic reaction, multiple different types of IgE are coded to detect other allergens. Upon detection, they latch onto mast cells and trigger them to produce the chemicals mentioned above that trigger the typical allergy symptoms. The discovery of IgE revealed why people have allergies in the first place and why some people have multiple allergies due to having different IgE antibodies present in their immune systems.
Rise of the 14 Major Allergens
In the 1990s, cases of food allergies were rapidly on the rise. For example, a Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology study found that 0.4% of American children had peanut allergies in 1997, while that number rose to 1.4% in 2008. There’s no conclusive explanation for why this is, though one theory is that increased washing for babies has made their skin more susceptible to foreign proteins such as those found in peanuts. It’s also speculated that changes in the widely used pertussis vaccine for infants with whooping cough may have a role. The vaccine switched to an acellular form in 1992, just before the documented rise in peanut allergies.
As mentioned, this rise can be seen in all the 14 major allergens, not just for peanuts – food allergy hospital visits tripled in the US from 1993 to 2006, with milk allergies being one of the most common.
One of the most popular theories for this rise links allergens with vitamin D exposure, with a study noting that babies born in the winter developed more food allergies than those born in the spring or Winter. With increased urbanisation over the last few decades limiting interactions with green space for many and people spending more time indoors, it’s easy to see why scientists would make the connection.
While a cure for allergies still seems far off, advancements in the last century have made these conditions more manageable than ever, with blood tests checking IgE levels and the development of epipens to treat anaphylactic shock. As we continue to understand the reasons for developing allergies, we can hopefuly reduce the number of new cases in the future.
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