Allergists speaking at a meeting this week in Boston of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology warned of the potential for some of life’s sweetest pleasures — a glass of wine, a beautifully scented room, the unconditional love of a pet — to set off fits of sneezing, coughing, hives and even serious asthma attacks.
An estimated 40 million to 50 million Americans suffer from asthma or other allergic diseases, and the incidence is increasing, the group says. Asthma rates alone have more than tripled in 25 years, now affecting more than 22 million people.
Reasons are not clear, say experts, but theories include air pollutants, dietary changes and changes in lifestyle. Genes also are a factor, and people who are genetically predisposed to allergies may be encountering more of the triggers, known as allergens, that can set off symptoms.
Air fresheners and scented candles: sometimes, the allergy trigger is right under your nose, says Atlanta allergist Stanley Fineman, president-elect of the allergists group. “I’ve been seeing more and more adults who are having problems with air fresheners,” he says. “They’re coming in with all kinds of symptoms,” from sneezing and congestion to headache, coughing, fatigue and asthma.
Candles and air fresheners may emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, such as formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene and other substances that increase asthma risk in children and can trigger eye and respiratory irritation and other health problems.
Treatment plans might include medication or allergy shots, changes in home decor or other avoidance strategies, but it starts with being aware.
Alcoholic beverages: Reactions to wine or other alcohol-containing drinks are rare, but symptoms can range from rash to severe asthma attacks, says allergist Sami Bahna, chief of Allergy and Immunology at Louisiana State University Medical School in Shreveport.
Potential allergens that occur naturally in beer and wine include hops, barley, ethanol, grapes, tryptamine, tyramine, wheat and histamine, and there may be added ingredients such as egg whites or sulfites, he says. “About a third of asthmatics can have difficulty with alcohol,” possibly in reaction to sulfites or other preservatives, he says.
In some cases, a mild allergy to a wine ingredient pairs up with a mild allergy to something in food, such as cheese, and the combination can cause an allergic reaction.
Pets: More than 90 percent of homes have “measurable dog and cat allergens,” even those that don’t have a resident pet, says Fort Lauderdale allergist Dana Wallace, president of the allergists group.
Animal dander, particularly cat dander, is “light and airborne for a long time.” People track it from their homes into stores, schools and to homes of friends.
She advises patients to find new homes for the pets, but “in 30 years of practice, I can count on one hand the number who have willingly given up a pet.” Because it’s almost impossible to avoid pet dander anyway, she says, allergy shots are usually recommended to help patients tolerate exposure.
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