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Being Stressed Out Makes Allergies Worse

August 15, 2008

New research presented on Thursday suggests psychological stress and anxiety can make seasonal allergy attacks worse and linger longer, according to a report at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Boston.

“People may be setting themselves up to have more persistent problems by being stressed and anxious when allergy attacks begin,” said Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Kiecolt-Glaser and colleagues recruited 28 men and women with a history of hay fever and seasonal allergies to participate in a laboratory study to gauge how stress and anxiety affect allergy sufferers.

The volunteers were subjected to a low-stress condition on different days such as reading quietly from magazines, to much more stressful conditions like giving a 10-minute, videotaped speech in front of a group of “behavior evaluators” and solving math problems without paper or pen in front of the group and then watching their videotaped performance.

Participants’ levels of stress and anxiety were assessed by standard skin prick allergy tests before and right after the stressful events, as well as the next day.

The researchers found that anxiety following the stressful event, heightened the magnitude of the allergic reactions induced by the skin prick tests. These allergic reactions show up on the forearm as slight wounds, or “wheals.”

Those who were only moderately stressed because of the experiment had wheals that were 75 percent larger after the stressful event compared to the same person’s response after the low-stress condition.

People who were highly stressed had wheals that were twice as large after they were stressed compared to their response when they were not stressed. These highly stressed people were four times more likely to show allergic wheals a full day after the stressful event.

The researchers say the study suggests that highly stressed people had an ongoing and strengthening response to the allergy-causing substances.

“The stress seemed to affect them into the next day,” explained Kiecolt-Glaser. That is, being stressed seems to cause a person’s allergies to worsen the next day.

Greater anxiety was associated with increased production in the body of stress hormones called catecholamines and the inflammation-related protein called interleukin-6, according to Ohio State immunologist Dr. Ronald Glaser who was involved in the study.

He thinks the elevated levels of these compounds are to blame for the delayed allergic reactions.

“This delayed allergic response is really what’s ugly about allergies, said Kiecolt-Glaser, because they are typically unresponsive to antihistamines.”

She advises trying to keep stress at a minimum, if possible, during allergy season.

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