Research Thursdays: Awful Allergies and Treatments Throughout the Ages. #WritingResearch

I love research. As a writer this is a good thing. We research plane crashes and stab wounds, to name a few examples. If anyone looked at our internet history they’d be thoroughly disturbed. (Unless they were another writer who knew about our work in progress!)

Today’s post is about allergies: Symptoms and treatments. I’ll also discuss historical treatments, because the history of medicine is fascinating.

ice cream nuts allergies
Image: Ice cream. I miss it, but the dairy free version is expensive and it’s cold out anyway!

Why was I researching allergies? A recent Sunday Scribbles prompt was ‘Sweet.’ All I could about is all the things I can’t have. Chocolate. Biscuits. Anything containing my arch-nemesis: Milk. Is it any wonder I wrote a story about a sweet hoarding dragon with an allergy?

I’m not a doctor. If you’re suffering with allergies, please seek help from a qualified medical professional!

What is an allergy?:

Allergies are immune system reactions to things that are usually harmless. They’re actually pretty common: One in four people in the UK have an allergy. Children are more likely to have them, but adults can develop allergies at any time. Symptoms are usually manageable, and extreme reactions are uncommon.  

Types of allergy:

Pollen, dust, medication and insect bites are just some of the things you can be allergic to. The most common food allergies are eggs, cows milk, shellfish and nuts.

The sweet hoarding dragon in my story was allergic to nuts. Sneezing caused huge problems for this fire breather!

Excerpt:

Sierra stepped forward and lowered her head. ‘You murdered a lot of people. The least you can do is let us have a bit of biscuit.’

The dragon blinked and appeared to swallow around a lump in its throat. ‘Humans aren’t fireproof?’

No! You really think that?’ Rory asked.

I’d rather hoped. I couldn’t stop sneezin’, an when I sneeze-‘ A sneeze cut the dragon off, and a fireball shot up into the air. It rubbed its nose and gobbled down a biscuit. ‘How unfortunate.’

dragon breathing fire
Image: Fire breathing dragon.

Symptoms:

When you have a food allergy symptoms usually occur within minutes, such as:

Sneezing. (Although unlike my dragon we don’t shoot fireballs when we sneeze!)

Runny/blocked nose.

An itchy red rash.

Watery, red, or itchy eyes.

Wheezing/coughing.

Symptoms are usually mild, but can sometimes be severe and cause anaphylactic shock. If you feel sick, light-headed, or have difficulty breathing, seek medical help. More advice here.

Treatments:

For mild allergies doctors can offer advice or medication to treat the symptoms. Advice usually involves avoiding the thing you’re allergic to. This can be tricky, because foods can contain ingredients you wouldn’t expect. You wouldn’t believe how many biscuits contain milk!

Medication, such as anti-allergy tablets, can ease the symptoms of dust allergies, hay fever and fur allergies. There are also decongestant nasal sprays to deal with a swelled or blocked nose, and creams to deal with itching or rashes.

For severe allergies, you may be referred to a specialist for tests. Immunotherapy can also help. It exposes you to the thing you’re allergic to over many months, so your body gets used to it and the reaction isn’t so severe.

Historical treatments:

Allergies are more common now than ever. One theories is that, because we live in a cleaner environment with less germs to deal with, the immune system goes into overdrive and attacks things that don’t cause harm.

There’s evidence allergies did exist in the past though. So how were they treated?

viking-1709635_640

In severe cases, they probably weren’t. The earliest recorded incident involved King Menses of Egypt. He was killed around 3000BC by a wasp sting, when no treatments were available.

Not all allergic reactions caused death. In China in 250BC, Shen Nong used Herbal Medicine to treat asthma: 80% of sufferers have allergies. Symptoms, congestion and mucus secretion, were treated with a plant, ephedra. The synthetic version, Ephedrine, is still used today.

Later, Rhazes, an Arabian physician (865-925) described allergies in his Dissertation on the cause of the coryza* which occurs in the spring when the roses give forth their scent. He was the first known writer to describe allergies, and suggested drinking lukewarm wheat bran, which had been soaked overnight in water, with added sugar and almond oil, to treat asthma. Yuck!

*Coryza is inflammation of the nose caused by hay fever.

Allergic reactions are documented throughout history. In his History of King Richard III, Thomas More wrote about the king’s reaction to strawberries:

Allergies Strawberries in a bucket

after one hour… he returned into the chamber among them, all changed, with a wonderful sour angry countenance, knitting the brows, frowning and froting [chafing] and gnawing on his lips… And therewith he plucked up his doublet sleeve to his elbow upon his left arm, where he showed a werish [deformed] withered arm and small, as it was never other.”

No treatment was suggested, but it’s clear the king had an allergic reaction!

Most allergies were ‘treated’ by avoidance. In the 1500’s, Gerolamo Cardano treated an archbishop, John Hamilton, for difficulty breathing and a cough. After over a months observation, he discovered the archbishop was allergic to the feathers in his bedding. Once the bedding was replaced, the symptoms disappeared.

Although allergies continued to be documented, treatments were lacking. In 1860 Henry Hyde Salter wrote a book about Asthma and its treatment. Although his observations on symptoms of exposure to allergens were good, his idea of treatment was to drink strong, hot coffee!

can coffee help with asthma symptoms.jpg
Can coffee really help with treating asthma? Who knows!

Physicians didn’t begin to experiment with immunotherapy until the early 1900’s. In 1911, Leonard Noon and John Freeman tried injecting low doses of pollen extract into those with hay fever. After the therapy, symptoms improved. If the doses were too high or too frequent there could be side effects, including anaphylactic shock!

After this, more treatments were developed. In 1937 Daniel Bovet made the first antihistamine drug, to treat the symptoms of allergies. In 1948 Philip Hench and Edward Kendall introduced corticosteroids to treat allergic reactions. This improved the lives of allergy suffers.

Allergy sufferers before the 1900’s had less options for treatment, but allergies were far less common too. If allergies became more common from the 1900’s onward, is it any wonder treatments only began to develop after that date?

This post only scratches the surface of the history of allergies. There are many books on the subject, but they’re expensive so I’d recommend the library if you want to know more 🙂

scales divider copy

Thanks for reading!

Given how common allergies are, I’m surprised they rarely feature in books or television. They could be a great plot device: Especially if a character eats the wrong thing at the wrong time, stands next to a rose bush whilst they are spying on someone and end up sneezing like crazy, or has a villain who finds out the hero’s allergy and exploits it!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest insight into the research behind my writing, and that I’ve inspired some story ideas with this post or provided some useful insights 🙂

Do any of your characters have allergies? Do you? What’s the most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing in the last month? Let me know in the comments!

Past posts in the series:

How to light a candle in the middle ages.

Roses: What’s in a colour?

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