A growing body of research has pointed to some common problems found among western societies: That allergies, asthma and chronic sinus problems are increasing. Although the research is not conclusive, some researchers suspect one main reason for these growing problems is the “hygiene hypothesis,” also called the “cleanliness hypothesis.” This theory states that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious organisms such as those found in gut flora, probiotics or common parasites increases the chances of allergic diseases because the immune system is naturally suppressed. In other words, the immune system’s tolerance is weakened because it hasn’t been exposed to certain bacteria and parasites that it should have at an earlier age.
Some of the microorganisms that many allergy and asthma suffers have not adapted to are allergens. People who are not routinely exposed to some allergens can develop allergies, particularly as children. When they are later exposed to an allergen, the body misidentifies the foreign substance as dangerous and then reacts with hives or other allergy symptoms.
There are many detractors of this hypothesis. But did you know that allergies and asthma are uncommon in developing or underdeveloped countries yet are increasing in developed countries?
Furthermore on increased allergies, research has shown that severe allergies are connected to chronic sinus problems and asthma. The connection to all these conditions has to do with the inflammation in the airways, which is similar in the nose and sinuses or in the lungs.
What can we do to prevent these conditions from progressing or causing greater severity in the other conditions? There is growing evidence that early management of allergies or sinus inflammation can reduce the risk of developing asthma. Immunotherapy (allergy shots, or now sublingual drops or tablets) in allergic and asthma-prone children has been shown in a couple of studies to reduce developing asthma and reducing asthma attacks.
According to Dr. Michael S. Benninger, “Sinus surgery may also be preventative in some people.” In a recently presented paper at the American Rhinologic Society’s spring meeting, researchers suggested people who underwent sinus surgery had lowered the severity of and even prevented their asthma from occurring.
Other interesting results from the paper include:
- Allergy patients with chronic sinusitis were at a higher risk of developing asthma than those with no allergies.
- Early surgical treatment (less than two years after a sinusitis diagnosis) resulted in less long-term asthma than in those who had surgery later (four to five years after a sinusitis diagnosis).
Sinuses affect the lungs and vice versa. What may cause inflammation in the sinuses may do so also in the lungs, especially for those with allergies. For those with allergies and chronic sinusitis, keeping the sinuses under control helps the lungs, and keeping the lungs under control helps the sinuses. Aggressive treatment, whether with allergy immunotherapy or sinus surgery, may help reduce the risk of developing a worse airway disease, like asthma.
What all this means is that we might be recommending surgery and immunotherapy earlier in order to relieve later symptoms.
One final though before you slather your children’s hands in antimicrobial gel: sometimes a little dirt is good for a little while. Of course, this doesn’t mean they should wash their hands regularly; it means we don’t have to be overly cautious with a little dirt sometimes because it might reduce the development of asthma and severe sinus problems.
Staph and Other Competing Bacteria
Some serious infections and diseases can be traced back to the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as staph. This type of bacteria is no stranger to the human body. In fact, it is often found on the skin’s surface, especially in areas like the groin and armpits. However, it is often benign in this state. While scientists are still unsure why it is present in the body, it does not seem to have much effect most of the time. For some, though, the situation is different.
After surgery or after an illness or medical procedure, staph can sometimes enter the bloodstream and cause a serious infection, making it difficult to treat. A recent study yielded some new facts regarding staph, as well as on another bacteria that helped reduce levels of infection.
A recent study discovered the presence of staph deep within certain areas of the nose. About one-third of the population are carriers of the bacteria, another third showed no trace and the rest were only occasional carriers. This study also uncovered some new information that may prove useful in the future treatment of staph infections. Another type of bacteria was found lurking in the same regions of the nose as the staphylococcus. This type of bacteria, Corynebacterium pseudodiphtheriticum, seemed to compete with staph. This meant that when there were high levels of the former, there was less of the latter present. This inversely proportional relationship makes it of particular benefit to researchers, as this second type of bacteria excreted a molecular solution that inhibited growth in staph. Should this be certain, this new piece of information may help in the creation of better treatments for dangerous staph infections or even prevent them altogether.
This comes as good news for the medical community, as more and more infections have become harder to treat and as several types of bacteria have become more resistant to pharmaceutical drugs.
You’ve probably heard it said that you can tell if you have a virus or a bacterial infection by the color of your mucus. Clear means you just have to wait it out. Greenish yellow means it’s time to head to the doctor for some antibiotics. But is this always the case? No.
Many times, discolored mucus is the result of a sinus infection. The problem is that some sinus infections are viral, and the great majority are caused by a fungus. If your sinus infection is fungal or viral, antibiotics won’t help. You may feel some lessening symptoms if you get bed rest and drink plenty of fluids, but it isn’t the antibiotic that is helping. More likely the antibiotic is what is causing your stomach discomfort. At the same time, your body is building up resistance to the antibiotic. Now, if you actually get a bacterial sinus infection, the same antibiotic may not be able to fix the problem.
So what is up with the green mucus? It’s actually caused by iron, which gives off a greenish color. When you have an infection, your body produces extra white blood cells to fight it off. These cells produce an enzyme which breaks down the bacteria. Iron is found in the enzyme, resulting in the discolored mucus. The longer it hangs out in your sinuses, the more green it will appear when you finally expel it. In fact, early morning mucus can be discolored just because you’ve been sleeping all night and haven’t been able to clear it out. So don’t assume you have a bacterial infection just because your first nose-blowing session in the morning creates a discolored mess.
The only time to really get worried is when your mucus resembles pus when you blow it out or cough it up. Just taking a couple of days off to rest and drink fluids is usually enough to get past sinusitis. Try a nasal decongestant or a sinus rinse to recover more quickly. If your symptoms persist for over a week, then a doctor’s visit is prudent.