Stress, sneeze, repeat: Study links stress to allergy flare-ups

People who regularly feel stressed out tend to have more frequent flare-ups of their allergies than allergy sufferers under less strain, according to a study in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Plus, the study found that the more flare-ups the people had, the more their mood worsened. The worse their mood, the more they felt stressed—and the more their allergy symptoms flared.

It’s a perfect storm of stressing and sneezing.

“Stress can cause several negative effects on the body, including causing more symptoms for allergy sufferers,” said lead study author Amber Patterson, MD. “Our study also found that those with more frequent allergy flare-ups also have a greater negative mood, which may be leading to these flares.”

About the study

The research involved 179 university employees in Ohio who were initially part of a 12-week-long study looking at the potential health benefits of mindfulness.

Part of the study involved completing an online diary each night at bedtime during two separate two-week periods. Diary details included any allergy symptoms, stressful events, stress levels and mood.

To help researchers calculate a daily stressful event score, the people also documented whether or not they had experienced a stressful scenario that day involving friends, spouses or partners, work, or coworkers. In addition, they rated their own stress level by answering the question: “Overall, how stressful were your relations with your friends/spouse/family/coworkers today?”

Researchers collected saliva samples of each person four times a day to measure levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress.

Sixty-nine people reported at least one allergy flare-up, and most had more than four during the total 28 days of diary entries. These same people also reported feeling more frazzled than those without allergy symptoms. Their allergies tended to flare up more during periods of stress, although generally not on the same day as a stressful event.

The study’s findings suggest that persistent stress over a period of time has more of an effect on allergy flares than any single day of high stress, the authors wrote.

Researchers also found a link between feeling upset or irritable and frequent allergy symptoms. Whether allergy symptoms led to the negative mood or the negative mood triggered the allergy symptoms—or even a bit of both—the study wasn’t able to answer.

The study’s findings are limited by relying on the people’s self-reports, which could mean that allergy symptoms weren’t accurately recorded. It’s also possible that allergy medications may have had an effect on people’s moods. But, the authors wrote, “if [the people] regularly used antihistamines during this study without reporting it, then the effects of stress on symptom flares could be greater than reported.”

Another possible limitation was that the study took place from September to May, so people with summer allergies would not have had symptoms.

The take-home message
Stress doesn’t cause allergies. But some allergy sufferers may benefit from stress awareness and coping strategies—from asking for help with overloaded schedules to carving out time to relax and have fun.

“While alleviating stress won’t cure allergies, it might help decrease episodes of intense symptoms,” Dr. Patterson said.

How can you tell what’s causing your allergies? What’s the difference between being allergic to pollen and being allergic to foods? Find the answers at the Allergies health topic center.

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