The allergy epidemics: 1870-2010

J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2015 Jul;136(1):3-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2015.03.048.


Before the first description of hay fever in 1870, there was very little awareness of allergic disease, which is actually similar to the situation in prehygiene villages in Africa today. The best explanation for the appearance and subsequent increase in hay fever at that time is the combination of hygiene and increased pollen secondary to changes in agriculture. However, it is important to remember that the major changes in hygiene in Northern Europe and the United States were complete by 1920. Asthma in children did not start to increase until 1960, but by 1990, it had clearly increased to epidemic numbers in all countries where children had adopted an indoor lifestyle. There are many features of the move indoors that could have played a role; these include increased sensitization to indoor allergens, diet, and decreased physical activity, as well as the effects of prolonged periods of shallow breathing. Since 1990, there has been a remarkable increase in food allergy, which has now reached epidemic numbers. Peanut has played a major role in the food epidemic, and there is increasing evidence that sensitization to peanut can occur through the skin. This suggests the possibility that changes in lifestyle in the last 20 years could have influenced the permeability of the skin. Overall, the important conclusion is that sequential changes in lifestyle have led to increases in different forms of allergic disease. Equally, it is clear that the consequences of hygiene, indoor entertainment, and changes in diet or physical activity have never been predicted.

Keywords: Hay fever; asthma; hygiene; indoor environment; lifestyle; peanut.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Africa / epidemiology
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Epidemics*
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Hygiene / history
  • Hygiene Hypothesis*
  • Hypersensitivity / epidemiology*
  • Hypersensitivity / history
  • Life Style / history
  • United States / epidemiology