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Keywords:

  • birch;
  • familiarity;
  • pollen;
  • pollinosis;
  • ragweed;
  • respiratory allergy

Background: The effects of sudden and massive exposure of the general population to novel airborne allergens are not known. This study aimed to investigate the clinical effects of two “new” allergens, ragweed and birch, in an area north of Milan during the last 15 years.

Methods:  We reviewed the records of 2571 monosensitized patients seen during the last 10 years in two allergy units north of Milan. Data included age at onset of allergic symptoms, and family history of allergic diseases. In this sample, 500 were allergic to grass, mite, birch, and ragweed; 293 to pellitory; 167 to mugwort; 100 to Alternaria; and 11 to plantain.

Results: Birch pollen-allergic patients and ragweed pollen-allergic patients showed a similar mean age at onset (35.3 years vs. 35.1 years; P = NS), but were significantly older than all other groups of patients (P < 0.001). Patients allergic to ragweed and birch pollen, 304 and 323 respectively, were >30 years at the onset of allergic symptoms. A family history of allergic disorders among first degree relatives was far less frequent among patients allergic to birch pollen (29%) or ragweed pollen (27%) than among patients sensitive to all other airborne allergens, except those allergic to mugwort pollen (P < 0.001). In both ragweed and birch groups, a positive family history was significantly more common among subjects < 30 years than in those > 30 years at onset of respiratory allergy (81/196 (41%) vs. 54/304 (18%), P < 0.001 for the ragweed group; 80/177 [45%]vs. 65/323 (20%), P < 0.001 for the birch group).

Conclusion: Exposure of the general population of this area to two new airborne allergens resulted in the onset of respiratory allergy in many older people who lacked any relevant predisposing factor. Although we cannot exclude the possibility that those who became allergic had been exposed to birch or ragweed pollen elsewhere, a more likely explanation is a specific susceptibility that remains viable until the subject encounters the “right” allergen.