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To most, allergies are merely a nuisance consisting of a stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and general malaise, but there are many people worldwide for whom the same mechanisms of the common allergy can be dangerous–including anaphylactic shock or death. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation estimates that one out of four Americans are allergy suffers; for an ailment so common, it is one that is poorly understood, but progress is being made. For some people the cure looks worse than the disease.

To keep things in context, the term “allergy” was coined only a hundred years ago, and even then it was a very rarely diagnosed condition. Previous to that time, allergy sufferers were labeled “hyper sensitives”, and were fairly rare. There is no doubt that medical diagnosis has improved since 1906, and that some cases of allergies or asthma went undetected, but barring that, the occurrences of these maladies have increased exponentially in a century. By all accounts, we have only ourselves to blame.

There are generally two schools of thought surrounding the growth of allergies in the twentieth century. Both have evidence in their favor, and neither is complete. Both explain why developed countries have seen such a dramatic increase of allergies, whereas developing nations have not.

Everyday Chemicals
Since the end of World War II, an abundance of chemicals has been introduced into the human environment. Not just the HFCS in our soda pop, but the things in soap and shampoo, the chemical residue on our dishes, leftover Teflon from a pan, or the phthalates that leech out of PVC pipes. It’s true that preservatives and additives all undergo years of testing before they are approved for human consumption, but that handful of years mayn’t be adequate to understand what a lifetime of use can do to a body. No one assumes that any one of our common chemicals is responsible, but all in conjunction are creating an adverse holistic effect.

This concept meets its epitome in a scenario call “Sick Building Syndrome” where a plethora of chemical contaminates join forces to make the interior of a building cause some people headaches, runny-nose, ear-aches, and other allergy-like symptoms.

The Hygiene Hypothesis
Over millions of years the human body has armed itself against a number of ills. It’s had to stockpile immune system weapons for all manner of parasites, germs, and junk, but in our age of daily baths, kitchen sanitizers, and purified water those weapons are somewhat superfluous. A million years of hard-won evolution don’t turn inactive after a mere hundred years of environment. No, instead they go cabin-fever, and freak out attack even benign substances like pollen and dust with a fervor of pent-up frustration.

Close-up of a hookworm
Close-up of a hookworm

Both ideas have their merits, and both sides have garnered support from past allergy and asthma suffers. The former has a cult of people who have excised the wonders of modern science from their lives–much like the organic food trend taken to an interesting extreme. The internet abounds with tales of people who grind their own flour to those who make soap, cheese, and their own cloths.

But those who profess the Hygiene Hypothesis often go to the extreme of purposefully introducing parasites like hookworm and intestinal worms into themselves in hopes of relief. Some are starting to think we’re too clean for our bodies to handle, and it’s messing us up. This dogma says to introduce young children to pets, let them get intestinal worms, and eat food off the floor even after the five-second rule–these things are contaminated, but that’s okay because they will teach the young body about what is a real concern, and what is trivial. This works fine for the offspring, I guess, but for the full-grown adult with trouble breathing? How about a quest to Cameroon for a hookworm that infects a person through contact with contaminated feces? The larva can breech intact skin, then travel the circulatory system until they reach a pulmonary artery where they use their teeth to dig in, and hang out for the rest of their lives. In a healthy adult, the hookworm symptoms are mild, and to some, a fair trade.

At the University of Iowa, some people are drinking a regular dose of whipworm eggs. The eggs hatch in the digestive tract, and the worms attach to the lining of the intestine where they skim off a supply of nutrients. Again, the side-effects are negligible, and most patients report a drastic reduction of allergic symptoms. Just don’t look into the toilet bowl before you flush.

I’ll just stick to Claritin.