Risk factors for allergy can be placed in two general categories, namely host and environmental factors.
Host factors include heredity, gender, race, and age, with heredity being by far the most significant.
However, there have been recent increases in the incidence of allergic disorders that cannot be explained by genetic factors alone.
Four major environmental candidates are alterations in exposure to infectious diseases during early childhood, environmental pollution, allergen levels, and dietary changes.
One of the most common food allergies is a sensitivity to peanuts. Peanut allergies may be extremely severe, but can sometimes be outgrown by children school-age. Tree nuts, including pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, and walnuts, are another common allergen. Sufferers may be sensitive to one, or many, tree nuts. Also seeds, including sesame seeds and poppy seeds, contain oils where protein is present, which may elicit an allergic reaction.
Egg allergies affect one to two percent of children but are outgrown by about two-thirds of children by the age of 5.The sensitivity is usually to proteins in the white rather than the yolk.
Milk, from cows, goats, or sheep, is another common allergy-causing food, and many sufferers are also unable to tolerate dairy products such as cheese. Lactose intolerance, a common reaction to milk, is not in fact a form of allergy. A small portion of children with a milk allergy, roughly ten percent, will have a reaction to beef. Beef contains a small amount of protein that is present in cow's milk.
Other foods containing allergenic proteins include soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, fruits, vegetables, spices, synthetic and natural colors, chicken, and chemical additives.
Latex can trigger an IgE-mediated cutaneous, respiratory, and systemic reaction. The prevalence of latex allergy in the general population is believed to be less than one percent. In a hospital study, one in 800 surgical patients (0.125 percent) report latex sensitivity, although the sensitivity among healthcare workers is higher, between seven and ten percent.
Researchers attribute this higher level to the exposure of healthcare workers to areas with significant airborne latex allergens, such as operating rooms, intensive-care units, and dental suites. These latex-rich environments may sensitize healthcare workers who regularly inhale allergenic proteins.
The most prevalent response to latex is an allergic contact dermatitis, a delayed hypersensitive reaction appearing as dry, crusted lesions. This reaction usually lasts 48 to 96 hours. Sweating or rubbing the area under the glove aggravates the lesions, possibly leading to ulcerations.
Anaphylactic reactions occur most often in sensitive patients, who have been exposed to the surgeon's latex gloves during abdominal surgery, but other mucosal exposures, such as dental procedures, can also produce systemic reactions.
Latex and banana sensitivity may cross-react; furthermore, patients with latex allergy may also have sensitivities to avocado, kiwifruit, and chestnut. These patients often have perioral itching and local urticaria. Only occasionally have these food-induced allergies induced systemic responses.
Researchers suspect that the cross-reactivity of latex with banana, avocado, kiwifruit, and chestnut occurs because latex proteins are structurally homologous with some plant proteins.
Toxins interacting with proteins
Another non-food protein reaction, urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, originates after contact with poison ivy, eastern poison oak, western poison oak, or poison sumac. Urushiol, which is not itself a protein, acts as a hapten and chemically reacts with, binds to, and changes the shape of integral membrane proteins on exposed skin cells.
The immune system does not recognize the affected cells as normal parts of the body, causing a T-cell-mediated immune response. Of these poisonous plants, sumac is the most virulent. The resulting dermatological response to the reaction between urushiol and membrane proteins includes redness, swelling, vesicles, blisters, and streaking.
Estimates vary on the percentage of the population that will have an immune system response. Approximately 25 percent of the population will have a strong allergic response to urushiol. In general, approximately 80 percent to 90 percent of adults will develop a rash if they are exposed to .0050 milligrams (7.7×10−5 gr) of purified urushiol, but some people are so sensitive that it takes only a molecular trace on the skin to initiate an allergic reaction.
Allergic diseases are strongly familial: identical twins are likely to have the same allergic diseases about 70% of the time; the same allergy occurs about 40% of the time in non-identical twins. Allergic parents are more likely to have allergic children, and their allergies are likely to be more severe than those from non-allergic parents.
Some allergies, however, are not consistent along genealogies; parents who are allergic to peanuts may have children who are allergic to ragweed. It seems that the likelihood of developing allergies is inherited and related to an irregularity in the immune system, but the specific allergen is not.
The risk of allergic sensitization and the development of allergies varies with age, with young children most at risk. Several studies have shown that IgE levels are highest in childhood and fall rapidly between the ages of 10 and 30 years. The peak prevalence of hay fever is highest in children and young adults and the incidence of asthma is highest in children under 10.
Overall, boys have a higher risk of developing allergy than girls, although for some diseases, namely asthma in young adults, females are more likely to be affected. Sex differences tend to decrease in adulthood.
Ethnicity may play a role in some allergies; however, racial factors have been difficult to separate from environmental influences and changes due to migration. It has been suggested that different genetic loci are responsible for asthma, to be specific, in people of European, Hispanic, Asian, and African origins.
Allergic diseases are caused by inappropriate immunological responses to harmless antigens driven by a TH2-mediated immune response. Many bacteria and viruses elicit a TH1-mediated immune response, which down-regulates TH2 responses. The first proposed mechanism of action of the hygiene hypothesis stated that insufficient stimulation of the TH1 arm of the immune system lead to an overactive TH2 arm, which in turn led to allergic disease. In other words, individuals living in too sterile an environment are not exposed to enough pathogens to keep the immune system busy.
Since our bodies evolved to deal with a certain level of such pathogens, when it is not exposed to this level, the immune system will attack harmless antigens and thus normally benign microbial objects — like pollen — will trigger an immune response.
The hygiene hypothesis was developed to explain the observation that hay fever and eczema, both allergic diseases, were less common in children from larger families, which were, it is presumed, exposed to more infectious agents through their siblings, than in children from families with only one child. The hygiene hypothesis has been extensively investigated by immunologists and epidemiologists and has become an important theoretical framework for the study of allergic disorders.
It is used to explain the increase in allergic diseases that have been seen since industrialization, and the higher incidence of allergic diseases in more developed countries. The hygiene hypothesis has now expanded to include exposure to symbiotic bacteria and parasites as important modulators of immune system development, along with infectious agents.
Epidemiological data support the hygiene hypothesis. Studies have shown that various immunological and autoimmune diseases are much less common in the developing world than the industrialized world and that immigrants to the industrialized world from the developing world increasingly develop immunological disorders in relation to the length of time since arrival in the industrialized world.
Longitudinal studies in the third world demonstrate an increase in immunological disorders as a country grows more affluent and, it is presumed, cleaner. The use of antibiotics in the first year of life has been linked to asthma and other allergic diseases. The use of antibacterial cleaning products has also been associated with higher incidence of asthma, as has birth by Caesarean section rather than vaginal birth.
Other environmental factors
International differences have been associated with the number of individuals within a population that suffer from allergy. Allergic diseases are more common in industrialized countries than in countries that are more traditional or agricultural, and there is a higher rate of allergic disease in urban populations versus rural populations, although these differences are becoming less defined.
Exposure to allergens, especially in early life, is an important risk factor for allergy. Alterations in exposure to microorganisms is another plausible explanation, at present, for the increase in atopic allergy. Endotoxin exposure reduces release of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α, IFNγ, interleukin-10, and interleukin-12 from white blood cells (leukocytes) that circulate in the blood. Certain microbe-sensing proteins, known as Toll-like receptors, found on the surface of cells in the body are also thought to be involved in these processes.
Gutworms and similar parasites are present in untreated drinking water in developing countries, and were present in the water of developed countries until the routine chlorination and purification of drinking water supplies. Recent research has shown that some common parasites, such as intestinal worms (e.g., hookworms), secrete chemicals into the gut wall (and, hence, the bloodstream) that suppress the immune system and prevent the body from attacking the parasite.
This gives rise to a new slant on the hygiene hypothesis theory — that co-evolution of man and parasites has led to an immune system that functions correctly only in the presence of the parasites. Without them, the immune system becomes unbalanced and oversensitive.
In particular, research suggests that allergies may coincide with the delayed establishment of gut flora in infants. However, the research to support this theory is conflicting, with some studies performed in China and Ethiopia showing an increase in allergy in people infected with intestinal worms.
Clinical trials have been initiated to test the effectiveness of certain worms in treating some allergies. It may be that the term 'parasite' could turn out to be inappropriate, and in fact a hitherto unsuspected symbiosis is at work. For more information on this topic, see Helminthic therapy.