Germs protect against allergies

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Contact with germs can reduce the risk of allergies

Almost a third of adults in Germany have suffered from an allergy in their lifetime. This is shown by a new study by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). Hay fever is one of the most commonly diagnosed allergies. But food and insect poison allergies are also increasing. Researchers suspect that early contact with germs could protect against later allergies.

Allergies limit the quality of life An itchy rash and pustules, watery eyes, a runny nose and shortness of breath are just some of the symptoms that can indicate an allergy. In the worst case, a so-called anaphylactic shock can occur, which can lead to circulatory shock and organ failure. If the victim is not treated promptly, they may die from the allergic reaction. For most people, however, the allergies are far less pronounced. Nevertheless, allergies can severely reduce the quality of life by not only influencing social life but also reducing performance and work capacity. While food allergies can often be managed well by avoiding the consumption of certain foods, such as, for example, lactose intolerance, by refraining from cow's milk products, people with hay fever have little opportunity to avoid the allergy-causing pollen. Usually only drugs with sometimes severe side effects or a special procedure for hyposensitization are available. Some naturopathic treatments can alleviate the symptoms, but not cure them. Doctors and scientists are therefore feverishly looking for new solutions that prevent allergies in advance.

Incidence of allergies has increased Since the 1970s, allergies have increased significantly in western industrialized countries. Nobody knows how this development came about. An explanation could be found in the western lifestyle. The development of allergies in eastern Germany also speaks for this: shortly after reunification in the early 1990s, despite the strong air pollution, far fewer allergies occurred in the new federal states than in the west. In the meantime, both the lifestyle and the frequency of the allergies have adapted.

Against the background that allergies have developed into a "widespread disease", the RKI conducted an investigation into the "frequency of allergic diseases in Germany. Results of the study on adult health in Germany ”. According to this, an allergy was diagnosed by a doctor in almost a third of adults in Germany. "Currently, almost 20 percent suffer from at least one allergy," the authors write. Those affected have allergies to plant pollen, mites, animal hair, insect venom or foods such as nuts or eggs and milk products. The majority of allergy sufferers (14.8 percent) are affected by hay fever. "Women are generally affected more often than men and younger people more often than older people," summarize the authors of the RKI study. Overall, however, the total of all allergic diseases has decreased since 1998. "However, a closer look at the development over time shows that the incidence of bronchial asthma has continued to increase and thus continues the trend from the 1970s to the 1990s, but the incidence of hay fever, neurodermatitis and food allergies has remained the same, i.e. has reached a plateau seems to have ", it continues in the investigation. However, the researchers point out that the visible decrease in allergic diseases is controlled by the lower number of doctor diagnoses for urticaria (hives) and contact eczema. On the one hand, it is conceivable that the number of diseases has actually decreased, on the other hand, the use of allergenic substances such as nickel or henna for dyeing the hair in everyday life has also been restricted. In general, the effects of these substances would be discussed more in public. In addition, another factor may have led to a decrease in medical diagnoses. "For example, ointments and creams containing corticosteroids were exempted from the prescription requirement, so that self-treatment of mild allergic skin diseases that is now possible could lead to fewer visits to the doctor," the researchers write.

Many children affected by allergies More than 20 percent of children are affected by an allergy at least once. This is particularly worrying because the risk of life-threatening allergic reactions in children is increased seven-fold, reports Sonja Lämmel from the German Allergy and Asthma Association to the news agency "dpa".

Allergies occur when the immune system shows violent defense reactions against actually harmless substances. “You have to think of the allergy immune system as a hyperactive police force that reduces crimes. But with the disadvantage that she sometimes also locks up innocent people, "Torsten Zuberbier, head of the European Foundation for Allergy Research Foundation and spokesman for the Allergy Center of the Berlin Charité, told the news agency.

New therapeutic approaches against allergies The Marburg allergist Harald Renz and his team discovered ten years ago why farm children are less likely to develop allergies. Your risk of asthma or hay fever is only half as high as that of children growing up in urban areas. "It is not the pigs or cows themselves that have the positive effect," Renz told the news agency. "It is the microbes that are found in large numbers on such farms." These switch off the genes that trigger allergic reactions. Renz suspects that early contact with many bacteria hardens the immune system. In this way, infants could receive targeted treatment with germs for prevention. "If we can find out how these microbes manage to switch off certain genes, we can use them specifically for preventive treatment." The bacteria could then have a positive effect on the intestinal flora and at the same time prevent allergies.

The allergist carried out experiments on mice in which pregnant female mice inhaled special bacteria. As a result, the animals became less likely to develop allergies. Since the preventive approach is not yet fully developed, further studies have to be carried out, especially with regard to the transferability to humans. There have already been many attempts with intestinal germs, some of which also reduced the risk of allergies. "However, we do not yet know exactly how they work," reports Renz. The timing of the ideal start of therapy is also not yet clear. Treatment could therefore be started during pregnancy or only at the baby's infancy.

“There is an experimental research approach, a swallow vaccination with bacterial components. One tries to train the immune system of infants better, "explains Lämmel with reference to food allergies." Current prevention recommendations are that the mother is breastfeeding for four to six months and that all foods are then offered to infants as part of the complementary diet. So also cow's milk and fish so that the immune system can develop tolerance early on. "

To prevent allergies, preventive approaches give hope, said Renz. "They mean the chance to prevent allergies before they even bother the patients." Until then, those affected usually only have to do without the allergy-causing substances and drug therapy to alleviate their symptoms. (Ag)

Image: Sebastian Karkus /

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