Researchers from Ohio State University in Columbus explore the link between allergies and stress in a new study, published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Allergies happen when a person’s immune system overreacts to a – generally harmless – foreign substance (an “allergen”), launching chemicals such as histamines that provoke allergy symptoms.

Drugs, dust, food, insect venom, mold, animal dander and pollen are the most common allergens, and can worsen some medical conditions, such as sinus problems, eczema and asthma.

Allergies can be treated by a variety of medications, including antihistamines, corticosteroids, decongestants, leukotrine inhibitors, or – in more serious cases – immunotherapy or epinephrine.

Allergies are not caused by stress, but it seems that stress can make allergy symptoms worse.

“Symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes can cause added stress for allergy sufferers, and may even be the root of stress for some,” says lead author of the new study, Dr. Amber Patterson. “While alleviating stress won’t cure allergies, it may help decrease episodes of intense symptoms.”

To test this, the Ohio State University researchers observed 179 participants over 12 weeks. Within this period, 39% of the participants had more than one flare-up of allergy symptoms. The researchers found that the group with allergy symptoms had higher stress levels.

Fast facts about allergies

  • Children sometimes outgrow allergies, especially food allergies.
  • Breastfeeding during the first 6 months of a child’s life can help prevent allergies developing.
  • Being exposed to certain allergens (such as dust mites or animal dander) in the first year of life can also protect against some allergies.

Although there was no clear association between allergy flares occurring immediately as a result of stress, many of the people with allergy symptoms did report that their allergies flared up within days of an increase to their daily stress levels.

“Stress can cause several negative effects on the body, including causing more symptoms for allergy sufferers,” says Dr. Patterson. “Our study also found those with more frequent allergy flares also have a greater negative mood, which may be leading to these flares.”

The study suggests that allergy sufferers should try and alleviate stress where possible.

They recommend techniques for this, such as meditating and breathing deeply, learning coping mechanisms that do not involve smoking or caffeine (which can make stress worse), making time for fun and relaxation, adopting a healthy lifestyle and asking for help when needed from family or colleagues.

The president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Dr. James Sublett, also notes that allergists may be able to help:

Allergy sufferers can also alleviate stress and allergy symptoms by seeing their board-certified allergist. An allergist will help you develop an action plan with ways to avoid allergy triggers and what treatment will be best for your individual needs.”

Recently, Medical News Today reported on another study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology that found cases of food allergy have doubled in black children.