Allergies and Your Genes
Could your allergies have as much to do with your genes as with the pollen in the air? Research into allergy genes is uncovering more information every day.
By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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It may not just be the pollen outside triggering your sneezing and scratchy throat. Whether allergies are genetic, and to what extent, is something researchers are exploring.
Genetics play a big role in a person’s chances of developing allergic symptoms, says Michael Mardiney, MD, an allergist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “In the history of allergy, there’s always been a familial association, meaning many people in one family are allergic,” he says.
Are All Allergies Genetic?
There are many types of allergies, from seasonal allergies (also called hay fever) to severe reactions to peanut products and other foods. Family history — your allergy genes — can be equally influential in all of them. When you have allergic reactions to certain substances, it’s because your body makes an active form of immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody that travels to specific cells, causing them to release certain chemicals. These chemicals cause the allergic symptoms.
People who are not allergic, on the other hand, may still produce IgE in response to certain allergens, but the response may not be strong enough to produce symptoms in the body. Doctors can determine the level of your body's response through a blood test or a skin-prick, but not all health professionals agree blood tests are important enough to warrant the cost. However, testing may be beneficial even when you don’t have symptoms, Dr. Mardiney says, especially if you have a family history of an allergy to substances like peanuts, which can lead to anaphylaxis and death. Even if you don’t have allergic reactions now, testing makes sense because those allergy genes can kick in without warning in the future.
“Let’s say I find a 5-year-old child who, by a blood test or skin test, is reactive to peanut,” Mardiney says. “But his mother says he eats peanut butter and jelly every day [with no problem]. I still don’t want this kid eating peanut. Peanut may change its responsiveness in terms of the IgE being made, and you might get an extreme response. All this is genetically influenced.” Keep in mind, though, that family history isn’t always a completely reliable predictor in determining if or when someone will develop childhood or adult allergies. With sibling allergies, for example, it’s possible one brother could have lots of allergies early in life, while the other might not develop them until his twenties, if at all.
The environment is another variable, because climate and available foods vary widely in different regions of the world. “If you’re in the Sahara Desert, and there’s no pollen and no peanuts, you may never express allergic disease because the trigger is not available,” Mardiney says. “The allergenic exposure is not sufficient to push you in that direction.”
Understanding Allergy Genes
If allergies are caused by an active form of IgE, then what makes some people produce active IgE to begin with? That question has been the subject of scientific research and at least one study, published in theJournal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,has found active IgE production may be caused by certain variants of human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, genes. These genes are an essential part of the body’s immune system, but certain forms of them could cause the body to have allergic reactions to harmless substances.
A study from Munich, Germany, found the development of eczema, an allergic skin disease, is related to a mutation of a specific chromosome in the body. Further studies on “allergy genes” and how they affect both adult allergies and childhood allergies may one day give researchers the ability to accurately predict the development of allergies, but the science isn’t there yet.
“This is definitely a genetic problem, but the genetics are not fully worked out,” Mardiney says.
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