Pollen causes umpteen problems for people sensitive to the fine plant powder. Summertime signifies a runny nose, itchy eyes and general fatigue for many people in the UK – symptoms that do not abate for months. While anyone can be affected by seasonal allergies, a recent study finds a surprising link to psychological factors.
According to a study conducted by the Technical University of Munich (TUM), seasonal allergies to different types of grass or tree pollen are more common in people with anxiety disorders, while patients with depression are more likely to suffer from perennial allergies triggered by allergens such as animal hair.
Conversely, food and drug allergies were unaffected by these psychosocial disorders.
The team interviewed over 1,700 people from the Augsburg area of Germany about their allergies.
Led by Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann, Director of the University Center for Health Sciences at University Hospital Augsburg (UNIKA-T) and Professor of Environmental Medicine at TUM, the team differentiated between perennial or non-seasonal allergies – such as those triggered by house dust mites or animal hair, seasonal allergies caused by grass pollen for instance, and allergies to other substances such as food.
The study participants also answered questions about their psychological health.
The focus here was on depression, generalised anxiety disorders – which affect all aspects of daily life – and acute mental stress.
“There are studies that focus on the psychological components of skin diseases or allergic asthma. For the first time, we are now able to show a connection with seasonal allergies,” explains Katharina Harter, the publication’s lead author.
Around a quarter of those surveyed (27.4 per cent) stated that they suffered from allergies, with 7.7 per cent reporting perennial, 6.1 per cent seasonal, and 13.6 per cent other forms of allergic reactions.
It turned out that people with generalised anxiety disorders also suffered more often from pollen allergies, but not from year-round allergies.
Statistically, these were actually less frequent in the group of anxiety sufferers.
A possible explanation for this might be that people with persistent allergies develop different coping strategies to deal with stress, which protect them from anxiety disorders.
On the other hand, there was a positive correlation between perennial allergies and depression or depressive episodes.
However, the structure of the study did not allow for clarification of whether allergies increase susceptibility to depression or whether depression itself is a risk factor for allergies.
What surprised the research team was the fact that psychological factors had little – if any – influence on the occurrence of food and drug allergies.
Possible mitigating factors that could compromise causal relationships were statistically excluded in this study. These included age, smoking/non-smoking status, gender, and family predispositions (e.g. to allergic asthma).
However, Harter also acknowledges the study’s shortcomings: “We have a relatively high average age of 61 years, so younger people are rather underrepresented here.
“The findings are also based on personal reports rather than official allergy diagnoses. But we have blood samples from all participants and intend to scientifically verify this point,” she confirms.
According to Prof. Traidl-Hoffmann, what this study particularly underscores is the importance of devoting sufficient time to patients. This is the only way to complement clinical evaluations with psychosocial aspects to support an integrated therapeutic approach, such as that practiced by the University Outpatient Clinic for Environmental Medicine at UNIKA-T.
According to Mayo Clinic other risk-factors associated with hay fever include:
- Having other allergies or asthma
- Having atopic dermatitis (eczema)
- Having a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with allergies or asthma
- Living or working in an environment that constantly exposes you to allergens — such as animal dander or dust mites