Cultural Ambivalence To Allergies Leaves Many Suffering Needlessly

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Indoor and outdoor allergies affect about 50 million people in the United States. Yet, according to "Attitudes About Allergies," a national telephone survey, allergies are often disregarded as a nuisance: in today's society allergies get little respect. As a result, allergy sufferers continue to cope needlessly with not only the physical impact of allergies, but the emotional effects as well. The survey was commissioned by Schering-Plough/MERCK Pharmaceuticals and conducted by Harris Interactive. Three separate surveys were conducted: a survey of more than 1,000 consumers, which included allergy sufferers and non-allergy sufferers; a survey of more than 1,000 allergy sufferers only; and a survey of 300 physicians.

The survey of consumers found that they view diabetes (81 percent), hypertension or high blood pressure (76 percent) and arthritis (57 percent) as more serious than indoor and outdoor allergies. Twenty-nine percent of consumers said they view insomnia as more serious than indoor and outdoor allergies. In addition, while the survey of consumers found that seventy-eight percent feel sorry for allergy sufferers, more than a third (36 percent) believe that allergy sufferers overstate the severity of their symptoms and thirty percent say allergy sufferers use allergies as an excuse to get out of something.

"Allergies are often disregarded in our society, making it acceptable to tell allergy sufferers to 'get on with it' and not complain," said Belinda Borrelli, PhD, associate professor, department of psychiatry and human behavior, Brown Medical School and The Miriam Hospital. "But allergies take an emotional toll on the sufferer. And despite that, sufferers persevere, going to work, school and social engagements as if nothing is wrong. Many don't feel like it would be acceptable to call in sick or change plans because of their allergies."

The survey of allergy sufferers found that about half (48 percent) feel their spouse or significant other does not view their allergies to be a serious health condition. Sufferers also perceive others as not taking their allergies that seriously, saying their relatives (81 percent), friends (86 percent) and co-workers (78 percent) view their allergies as a somewhat serious or not serious health condition. Even their physicians, they say, are ambivalent. The survey of allergy sufferers found that nearly three quarters (74 percent) believe that their doctor views their allergies as a somewhat serious or not serious health condition.

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But clearly, that's not the case. According to the survey of physicians who treat allergies, a majority of physicians (84 percent) said in general, patients do not overstate allergy symptoms. In addition, most physicians view insomnia (83 percent) and osteoarthritis (69 percent) as being less serious or equally as serious as allergies. Physicians report they view diabetes (90 percent) and hypertension (84 percent) as being more serious than allergies.

"Societal ambivalence toward allergies has impacted the management of the disease," said David Lang, M.D., Section Head Allergy/Immunology Respiratory Institute at Cleveland Clinic. "It's true that allergies aren't life threatening, but they are quality of life-threatening on both physical and emotional levels."

According to the survey of allergy sufferers, only about a third (34 percent) go to see a doctor for treatment when their symptoms are bothering them.

"It's absolutely crucial for allergy sufferers to begin a dialogue with their physicians so that, together, they can address and overcome the barriers keeping them from finding effective relief," said Jennifer Derebery, M.D., clinical professor of otolaryngology at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

The survey of allergy sufferers also shed new light on the often hidden emotional impact of allergy symptoms. According to the survey, six in 10 sufferers (62 percent) report that their symptoms impact their mood. The sufferer survey also found that when experiencing symptoms about half (51 percent) say they feel annoyed; forty-eight percent say they feel irritable (48 percent); forty-two percent say they feel frustrated. And, two in 10 (22 percent) report that their allergy symptoms make them feel less attractive; nineteen percent feel self-conscious (19 percent).

"We need to empower people with allergies to speak up and treat their allergies as what they are -- a medical condition that can have difficult and sometimes debilitating effects," said Mike Tringale, director of external affairs, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). "Allergy sufferers should feel comfortable talking about their symptoms with their family, friends and healthcare providers."

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