Blooming spring flowers signal the beginning of spring, but for millions of people, they also signal the onset of the misery: allergy and asthma season. Itchy, watery eyes; sneezing, runny nose; cough and wheezing are triggered by an overreaction of the body to pollen.
As scientific advancement was stifled during the Middle Ages, in large part due to the plague, it wasn’t until 900 years later, in 1819, that Dr. John Bostock published a description of his own seasonal allergies. But he didn’t know what was causing them.
In the nine years between his first and second publications, he found only 28 additional cases consistent with his own seasonal allergy symptoms, which perhaps demonstrates the lower prevalence of the condition at the time.
He noted that nobility and the privileged classes were more often afflicted by seasonal allergies. This was thought to be the consequence of wealth, culture, and an indoor life.
Societal changes with their roots in the Industrial Revolution, including increased exposure to air pollution, less time spent outdoors, increased pollen counts and improved hygiene, all likely contributed to the increased prevalence of allergies that we continue to see today.
They also helped form the hygiene hypothesis, which states that in part decreased exposure to particular bacteria and infections could be leading to the increase in allergic and autoimmune diseases.
The source of seasonal symptoms at the time was also thought to be caused by the smell of new hay. This led to the coining of the term “hay fever.”
Dr. Charles Blackley identified that pollen was to blame for allergy symptoms. He collected, identified, and described various pollens and then determined their allergic properties by rubbing them into his eyes or scratching them on his skin.
He then noted which ones resulted in redness and itching. This same technique is used in skin prick testing by allergists today.