Updated 04 July 2014

Pollen allergies increase women's leukaemia risk

A study suggests that women with pollen allergies may be at increased risk for blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma.

Women with pollen allergies may be at increased risk for blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma, a new study suggests.

Researchers did not uncover the same link in men. This suggests there is something unique in women that causes chronic allergy-related stimulation of the immune system to increase vulnerability to the development of blood cancers, the study authors said.

The study included 66 000 people, aged 50 to 76, who were followed for an average of eight years. During the follow-up period, 681 people developed a blood cancer. These people were more likely to be male, to have two or more first-degree relatives with a history of leukaemia or lymphoma, to be less active and to rate their health status as poor.

Important gender differences

Among women, however, a history of allergies to plants, grass and trees was significantly associated with a higher risk of blood cancers. The reason for this is unknown but may have something to do with the effects of hormones, according to the authors of the study in the American Journal of Haematology.

"To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study to suggest important gender differences in the association between allergies and [blood cancers]," wrote study first author Dr Mazyar Shadman, a senior fellow in the clinical research division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle.

Shadman noted that there is great scientific interest in the immune system's potential role in cancer development.

Dysregulation of the immune system

"If your immune system is over-reactive, then you have problems; if it's under-reactive, you're going to have problems. Increasing evidence indicates that dysregulation of the immune system, such as you find in allergic and autoimmune disorders, can affect survival of cells in developing tumours," Shadman said in a news release from the centre.

While the study found an association between pollen allergies and blood cancers among women, it did not prove cause-and-effect.


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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