Although they are common, allergies can interfere with a person’s ability to complete daily tasks, and symptoms may lead to avoiding social interactions. This article examines the impact of allergies on mental health. What does the research say? Are doctors treating the illness holistically?

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How do allergies affect mental health? Image credit: Lucas Ottone/Stocksy.

Allergies are very widespread. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 50 million people experience allergy symptoms every year.

People living with allergies may be prone to experiencing mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. The correlation between mental health and allergies is an ongoing debate, but recent studies have shed light on parallels that may improve treatment for patients.

Allergies themselves can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health. Why is this the case, and how can the medical community expand the conversation to avoid stigmatizing allergies?

Allergies are a reaction from the immune system to a foreign substance, also known as an allergen. The immune system releases antibodies to protect the body from these allergens.

An allergic reaction can develop due to food or environmental factors. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.

Common allergy symptoms may include:

  • itchiness in the eyes
  • sneezing, sniffing, and coughing
  • hives, which form a raised rash
  • heavy breathing through the mouth
  • wheezing and shortness of breath
  • headaches
  • coughing.

Severe symptoms may also include:

  • ear pain and ear infections
  • nose bleeding
  • gastrointestinal issues.

Although they are common, allergies can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms may resemble other medical issues. There is not a specific cure for allergies, but treatment can minimize symptoms.

Allergy medications — called antihistamines — are designed to improve symptoms, but side effects include drowsiness that can interfere with daily activities and sleeping patterns.

Some researchers believe that the inflammatory substances that cause allergic reactions in the body may also affect the brain, playing a role in the development of depression and anxiety.

Similarly, for a person living with a mental health condition, symptoms of an allergic reaction may heighten levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

A 2019 study from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom, among others, found that treated atopic eczema is associated with a 14% increase in the risk of developing depression and 17% in the risk of a later diagnosis of anxiety.

Its authors concluded that “[t]hese results highlight the importance of a comprehensive bio-psycho-social approach to limit common mental disorders in those with atopic eczema and could guide recommendations for the management of atopic eczema.”

Allergy symptoms involve an external and noticeable reaction from the body. Consequently, up to 53% of adults living with allergies avoid social interactions, which can lead to isolation and lower quality of life, according to recent survey data from Allergy UK.

Moreover, symptoms can interfere with regular sleep cycles contributing to physical fatigue and worsening mental health conditions.

According to the same survey from Allergy UK, 52% of people living with allergies felt the need to downplay symptoms due to fear of judgment from family, friends, or an employer leading to feelings of fear, isolation, and depression.

Parents of children with allergies also experience mental stressors, with 54% indicating they felt anxious about their children having a possible allergic reaction while dining outside the home.

For children, severe allergy symptoms can interfere with outdoor activities, while food allergies can trigger stress around peers in school and limit social encounters.

A 2016 study examining the behavioral changes of children with allergic diseases concluded that “[t]he increasing number of allergic diseases with internalizing behaviors at age 7 years has substantial clinical implications,” as the children could develop anxiety or depression later in life.

A 2018 study also found a strong correlation between seasonal allergies and mood disorders. A significant implication of this study is the need for early integrated care by referring and screening children and young adults with allergies for mental health conditions as a preventive measure.

However, Rahmah Albugami, clinical director and outpatient professional counselor at Makin Wellness told Medical News Today that:

“For the findings to be generalizable, health disparities such as age, race, gender, special health care needs, and geographical location should be considered to expand future research.”

Some communities may be less likely to have access to preventive care. Expanding research groups to include historically marginalized communities — who are less likely to manage allergic diseases by way of professional health care access — can shed light on the socioeconomic determinants that play a role in seeking and accessing the right treatment.

Since allergies are tied to inflammation, doctors recommend that patients should follow an anti-inflammatory diet high in fiber, omega-3s, and probiotics. Adding fresh fruits and vegetables filled with antioxidants will also boost the immune system.

Avoiding fragrances like perfumes and candles may also help eliminate triggers.

Doctors also encourage adults and children to pursue an active lifestyle that contributes to both physical and emotional well-being.

Aside from identifying and treating physical symptoms, doctors encourage people with allergies to be open about any mental health symptoms they may be experiencing.

Speaking with a mental health professional can help lower stress levels and provide tools for emotional management. Some people may also find encouragement by connecting with other people managing similar conditions.

The correlation between allergies and mental health is not a frequent topic of discussion, which unfortunately contributes to the stigma around allergies.

According to Albugami, recent research “impl[ies] that there is a direct correlation between mental and physical well-being and that each exists in synchrony with one another.”

“This illustrates that the human experience needs to be assessed holistically,” she added.

Dismantling the stigma surrounding allergies and mental health begins with equipping patients to identify and understand symptoms — both physical and psychological.