March 19, 2008 – Philadelphia, PA — U.S. soldiers who serve in Iraq may be at increased risk of developing allergies, a new study suggests.
A review of the medical records of more than 6,000 soldiers shows that those who were deployed to the Persian Gulf were about twice as likely to have newly diagnosed allergic rhinitis (nasal allergies) after discharge, compared with those who were stationed stateside.
“All of them say they didn’t have allergies before [they served],” says researcher Anthony Szema, MD, chief of allergy at Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y.
The findings, presented here at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunotherapy (AAAAI), held true for both men and women.
About Allergic Rhinitis
Allergic rhinitis affects about 40 million people in the U.S. Seasonal allergic rhinitis, better known as hay fever, most commonly hits people in the spring, when trees, grasses, weeds, and ragweed release their pollen. Perennial allergic rhinitis, which hits year-round, is triggered by common indoor allergens, such as animal dander, mold, droppings from dust mites, and cockroach particles.
If you’re sensitive, your immune system views the pollen or other allergen as a foreign invader and sends an out an army of histamines. Histamines are chemicals that trigger inflammation in the sinuses, nose, and eyes. From there, it’s a downward spiral into fits of sneezing, congestion, postnasal drip, runny nose, and itchy eyes.
Veterans Suffering Asthma, Allergies
Szema says that the idea for the study came from Department of Defense correspondence that stated that 13% of U.S. Army medic visits in Iraq are for new allergies, asthma, and other respiratory ills.
Additionally, after discharge, “soldiers were showing up at VA hospitals complaining of cough, stuffy nose, and wheezing,” he says.
To determine if allergic rhinitis could account for the symptoms experienced by the soldiers, the researchers analyzed 6,233 computer records from veterans who served from 2004 to 2007.
Results showed 9.9% of soldiers deployed to the Persian Gulf for a year or more had allergic rhinitis vs. 5.1% of homeland-stationed personnel.
Pollution, Dust Mites, Could Contribute
The study was not designed to show how serving in Iraq might increase susceptibility to allergies. But Szema tells WebMD that he suspects dust mites, air pollution, or both, may be to blame.
The tents and trailers where many soldiers sleep are often full of dust, he says. “And if they’re air- conditioned, the humidity promotes the growth of dust mites.”
“Or, maybe it is lung injury due to inhaling a lot of pollution,” Szema says, pointing to the massive dust storms that plague the country. Other sources of pollution that are present in Iraq but not the U.S. include exhaust from rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs (improvised explosive devices), he says.
Szema says a lot more study, preferably following soldiers from enlistment through deployment to discharge, is needed.
In the meantime, a protective mask may help guard against new allergies or worse symptoms, Szema says.
He also recommends soldiers invest in a high-efficiency pollution air (HEPA) filter, which forces air through a special screen, trapping particles such as dust mites.
Clifford Bassett, MD, vice chair of AAAAI’s public education committee and an allergist at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., notes that allergic rhinitis is on the rise throughout the world.
If you’re suffering from a stuffed-up or runny nose or persistent sneezing that lasts more than a few days, see your doctor, he advises.
“Too often people trivialize allergies. Early and prompt treatment can reduce symptoms and improve your quality of life,” Bassett tells WebMD.