Role of the Environment
Researchers also believe that the environment plays a key role in the likelihood of developing an allergy. One of the most respected theories on why certain individuals may develop an allergy is the Hygiene Hypothesis. This suggests that the immune system needs to come into contact with a variety of micro-organisms and bacteria while it is developing at the infant stage, in order that it responds appropriately later in life.
The thinking behind this, and much of the research into allergies, is that modern hygiene habits and the developed world’s fixation with destroying germs mean that many of our children may not be developing adequate immune systems. Comparing our lifestyles to those in areas where there is a much greater exposure to infectious disease, experts have seen that populations in these areas do not suffer from allergies at the same high rate.
In the United Kingdom exposure of most of our children to animals is limited to household pets, while even among our own farming communities it has been seen that children with regular contact with animals have a lower incidence of allergy.
The Hygiene Hypothesis also suggests that a firstborn child is more likely to suffer from allergies due to the sterile home environment, while latter children benefit from older siblings bringing home germs and bacteria, which allow their immune systems to develop and respond in the correct manner.
Over the last 100 years, through the use of vaccinations and antibiotics, the medical profession has made huge strides in defeating the menace of infectious diseases that previously killed large portions of the population. The continued use of vaccinations is, of course, essential to protect the health of our children and the nation, and eradicating virulent killer diseases is of the utmost importance.
However, the cost of this may be the dramatic reduction in the pressure placed on immune systems, and this may be one of the factors in why so many people’s immune systems are reacting to allergens. Further research into this possible link between the reduced pressure on immune systems and developing allergic reactions is needed.
Last updated: March 2012