Can anxiety cause allergy attacks?

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
@ActiveLouise
Ask Louise


23 April 2020

What can make your symptoms worse?

Stress hormones can also make allergies symptoms more acute1. They ramp up an already hypersensitive immune system. Anxiety may not be the reason that you have allergies but it is a contributing factor.

When stressed or anxious, chemicals such as cytokines are released by the body. These chemicals are messaging signals. They would have allowed our caveman selves to respond quickly to danger - something like a tiger attack.

In 2020, a common anxiety trigger is more likely to be a queue for the supermarket. Rummaging for supplies in your rubber gloves may feel just as hazardous! Who needs tigers when we now view other people as toxic obstacles?

Stress chemicals are there to ensure that we activate our 'run away' muscles. They can also make our immune system more sensitive to threat.

So what is an allergy?

Allergic rhinitis affects one in five people in the UK2. It causes inflammation in the nose, eyes and throat. This is caused by an allergen; such as pollen, dust, mould or flakes of skin from pets. Symptoms of this are an itchy, runny or congested nose; puffy, itching and streaming eyes; sneezing; and sometimes a dry cough.

Hayfever is a type of allergic rhinitis; the allergen responsible here is pollen. If you have started to feel cold-like symptoms recently, it may be hayfever or allergies. If you are struggling to tell the difference, then the blog What's the difference between cold and allergy symptoms? may help. The pollen season starts in mid-March and lasts until September. You can stay up to date with the latest pollen information on our Pollen forecast page.

One in eleven children in the UK have asthma3. This affects the lungs and breathing. 80% of asthma sufferers have nasal symptoms as well4. There may be other triggers for asthma, but allergens are a common factor. The symptoms of an asthma attack are wheezing, coughing and laboured breathing.

There are often two phases of an allergic attack. The first occurs within minutes of being exposed to the allergen, such as pollen or dust. The nervous system is alerted, the nose feels an itch and fills with clear mucus. Then the sneezing starts. This will not go down well in the supermarket.

The immune system is usually busy defending us from infections and things like viruses. Today it has made a mistake. It has identified a little pollen particle as a dangerous invader. The sneezing and runny nose is an attempt to flush it out.

The second phase of the allergy attack may come hours later. The immune system is afraid that the pollen particle is going to come back. It shares a description or mug shot of the pollen with other immune cells. They develop a histamine bomb that will take care of the threat. It also alerts all the surrounding immune cells to be on the ready.

A tiny pollen particle drifts through the air and lands on a nasal hair. This time our immune system is ready! Histamine bombs away. Boom! Sneeze, itch, snot, tears and a big reaction. Histamine causes the nasal passages to become inflamed and congested. The immune system is now hypersensitive and on high alert. Even a suggestion of pollen is enough for it to launch more histamine. The more allergen it is exposed to, the more extreme its reaction becomes. The immune system is primed for attack and it knows the enemy.

Other inflammatory chemicals like cytokines are released because of this allergic response. They may travel to the hypothalamus, our caveman part of the brain. This can cause tiredness, irritability and poor concentration. Cytokines are already flooding the system when we are anxious or stressed. This can make the second phase of the immune attack more severe. It will also take longer to calm down.

How to help both anxiety and the symptoms of allergies.

It's important to treat both the mind and body when treating allergies. Emotions can fuel the inflammatory cycle of an oversensitive immune system. We want to soothe the symptoms, and calm the mind to dampen down the inflammation.

Avoid the allergen. Once the immune system has responded to an allergen, it doesn't forget. Each exposure will worsen the symptoms because the attack will get stronger. This is called an allergic cascade. Try to avoid the thing that is causing your symptoms.

  • Pet dander - Put Precious the pet outside, or at least in another room; make sure he is washed regularly.
  • Dust – hoover every day; change your pillow to an allergy care one; dust with a damp cloth. Better still, get someone else to dust for you, on account of your allergies!
  • Pollen – Try to stay indoors and close the windows on the days that have a high pollen count. Wear balm around your nose to trap pollen. Don't dry your clothes outdoors or cut the grass. More tips on dealing with hayfever can be found here.

Focus on your breathing.

  • Keep the airways clear. A nasal spray or neti pot will help to manually flush out any allergens from the nose. They also dissolve any goo that may be blocking the airways. Itching, dryness and irritation will be soothed. A.Vogel's Pollinosan Nasal Spray is licensed for the relief of hayfever and allergic rhinitis symptoms. It may be more convenient than hanging over the sink with your nasal rinse. It's fine for long-term use, for asthma suffers, and for children for the age of six.
  • Are you a mouth breather? Mouth breathing has been linked to more acute asthma attacks5. Mouth breathers are more likely to develop allergic rhinitis. If you breathe through your mouth you are more likely to snore and to have a poor night's sleep. You may also wake up with a dry and sore throat. Your nose is a filter that has all these little hairs and mucus to trap impurities and toxins. Air is warmed as it passes through the nose so that cold air doesn't irritate the throat and lungs. Try to use your nose to breathe through; if you don't it will just block up more.
  • Stress and anxiety can make the breath rapid and shallow. It usually accompanies an increased heart rate. It can feel as if you are running out of breath. This is not helping your allergies. Box or relaxation breathing can help defuse an anxious moment. Read about it here - Breathing tips to relieve stress.

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Sleep and anxiety.

  • Allergies can impair sleep quality quite badly. There's nothing worse than a blocked nose or an itch to keep you awake. Sleep deprivation will lead to increased inflammation, which will worsen allergy symptoms. Keep that nose clear so that you can breathe. Go to bed earlier if you are sleeping badly. You need to get that shuteye for cellular repair and to support the immune system.
  • A lack of sleep will result in tiredness which will affect concentration. It's also more difficult to handle stressful situations when you are tired. Discomfort and pain will be felt more acutely. All of these scenarios can worsen anxiety. Get into the habit of having a relaxing bed routine.
  • Try not to binge on twitter news, Covid-19 feeds, and hourly news up-dates. If this is a source of worry, keep informed once or twice a day instead. Focus on things that make you relaxed and happy. Chat with a friend, do some stretching exercises or feed the birds. Try bread-baking or make an obstacle course in your sitting room.

It's important that both stress and allergies are looked after. If you are experiencing symptoms that are not eased or resolved with over the counter remedies do talk to someone. Either your GP or practitioner. Our A.Vogel Helpline may be a useful service to ring or message if you need any more information.

References:

1https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/is-stress-making-your-allergy-symptoms-worse

2https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/allergic-rhinitis/

3https://psnc.org.uk/services-commissioning/essential-facts-stats-and-quotes-relating-to-asthma/

4https://www.pcrs-uk.org/sites/pcrs-uk.org/files/GTBR_Rhinitis.pdf

5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26991116

6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.ov/pubmed/19140159

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