Allergy sufferers blow money out the window

During certain times of the year, especially in the spring, I tend to develop short periods of aggressive, uncontrollable sneezing. My wife is convinced that I have allergies.

I, on the other hand, am equally convinced that I merely am developing intense, short-term colds that last only a few hours and have nothing at all to do with air quality and the fact that I may or may not have been dusting at the time. For some reason, she seems to think I'm stubborn.

I have to acknowledge that my wife may know what she's talking about. She seems to be allergic to pretty much every pollen known to man, several foods, Pauly Shore movies, and numerous other things that we discover from time to time. Recently, she found that she's allergic to wheat when eating a sandwich led immediately to debilitating headaches and a swollen tongue. On the bright side, we've moved from Virginia, allergen capital of the world, to New York, where the dreaded pollen season is mercifully short. On the down side, it sometimes seems like every time we learn to control an allergy, another one takes its place.

My wife is hardly alone: according to a recent study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a government agency, Americans spent $11 billion on treatment for their allergies in 2005. This includes doctor's bills, prescription drugs, and other remedies. AHRQ's statistics indicated that 22 million Americans reported visiting a doctor, getting a prescription, being hospitalized, getting home care, or otherwise being affected by some sort of allergy.

This represents a massive increase over 2000, when a comparatively paltry $6 billion was spent on allergy care. In addition to an increasing number of allergy patients, individual annual expenditures for allergies also increased, from $350 to $520 per person.

According to Dr. Hugh Sampson, a noted allergist, food allergies are on the rise in the United States. Sampson notes that part of this is due to the country's large immigrant population, many of whom are coming into contact with a large number of new foods. He also cites the hygiene hypothesis, which argues that America's relatively germ-free environment results in underdeveloped immune systems. Personally, I'd offer an alternate hypothesis: as we eliminate allergens and pollutants from our environment, we become more sensitive to other dangers. While my research is pretty weak, it's also very compelling: my grandparents were strong, hardy folk who could down a glass of dioxin with a side of DDT and only get a slight buzz, while a whiff of cigarette smoke now makes me sneeze uncontrollably.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I'm pursuing a research grant from Philip Morris.

If you have allergies, WebMD states that the best time to begin treatment is three weeks before allergy season is scheduled to start. If you begin your treatment at that time, chances are that your medications will be far more effective at curbing your symptoms. Additionally, the website offers a strong endorsement of acupuncture as an allergy treatment, noting that one study showed that it reduced allergy symptoms in 100% of sufferers. Another study showed reduced symptoms in only half of sufferers. Either way, it seems like a very effective solution for allergy sufferers. Now if I can only convince my wife to try it out!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's now discovering the high cost of allergies. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find gluten-free chocolate chip cookies?
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