Allergies: Australia’s 365 day-a-year problem

Most people equate spring with allergies, but the fact is that allergies are a 365-day-a-year problem in Australia.

With Australia’s vast landmass comes enormous variation in plant life and weather patterns. The north is hot and sub-tropical, while the south is cooler, meaning some plant species are better suited to some areas over others. And with different flora come different pollination cycles.

Dr Daman Langguth, a leading Australian pathologist specialising in immunopathology explains:

“In Melbourne, rye grass pollen blows down from the north-western plains, often triggering asthma attacks. That is certainly part of a spring-based allergy cycle.

“But in Queensland, the basis for a lot of allergies is Paspalum (or Bahia) grass. Paspalum is not a spring-based phenomenon. Paspalum pollinates five times a year.”

In other words, there is no allergy ‘season’ as such in Queensland.

And if we look a bit further into allergies, into say dust-mite, in a similar way to Paspalum grass, dust-mite can cause allergy problems all year round.

“Dust-mite love humidity and carpet is actually quite a humid environment. So whatever temperature it is outside, a house with carpet is an ideal habitat for dust-mite to live in,” says Dr Langguth.

Given there are many sources for airborne allergies, how do you know what you’re allergic to?

Just as there is no single season or habitat for allergies and pollens, not every person will be allergic to the same thing. Therefore, it’s good to know which ones effect you.

Skin tests

A skin test is used to detect airborne allergens, such as dust mite, dander, mould, cockroach and pollen. The process involves taking a small amount of allergen and injecting it into the skin to gauge the reaction. The process takes roughly 20 minutes which means you can discuss the result with your doctor.

Blood serum tests

Also known as ‘Serologic IgE antibody assays’, these tests take a sample of blood to see if they produce Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to fight allergens. Because the test is taken on an extracted sample of blood, there’s no chance of an all body reaction. These tests are often used when a skin test is not possible, or the person has a skin condition, or medications which might interfere with test results.

Challenge tests

A challenge test involves giving a small amount of an allergen by mouth or inhalation. Dust-mite can be a trigger for asthma, and some allergy experts will prescribe a course of tablets containing traces of an allergen so that the body can build resistance to it.

Diagnosis brings relief

For those experiencing year-round allergies, finding out the source of airborne allergens – from grasses to carpets to pet dander – can provide enormous relief.

“If you’re sneezing, itchy, perpetually have a blocked nose, develop rashes, or a variety of other symptoms throughout the year, there’s a reasonable chance you need an allergy test,” Dr Langguth suggests.

“Spring certainly brings its challenges for allergy sufferers, particularly in a city like Melbourne with its flat plains, which make it vulnerable to rye grass pollens, but the fact is that allergens are with us all year round.”

For those suffering ‘seasonal’ allergies to grass pollens, scientists at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) are developing a pollen map which uses satellites to identify areas of high vegetation most likely to release high levels of pollen.