Allergy sufferers who say symptoms like sneezing, sniffling, and red, itchy eyes make them miserable may not be exaggerating. Recent studies show an association between seasonal allergies and clinical depression. While researchers can't say that allergies actually cause people to feel depressed, it does appear that allergy sufferers are more vulnerable to depression.
“Most people who have allergies don’t have depression, and most people who are depressed don’t have allergies,” says Paul S. Marshall, PhD, a clinical neurophysiologist in the department of psychiatry at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. “But I think it’s accurate to characterize allergies as a risk factor for depression.”
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Could it be a risk factor for you? Large-scale population studies suggest that allergy sufferers are roughly twice as likely to have depression as people without allergies.
In one such study, adults with allergic rhinitis (hay fever) were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with major depression in the previous 12 months. In another study, kids who had hay fever at age 5 or 6 were twice as likely to experience major depression over the ensuing 17 years.
More recent research also supports the allergy-depression connection.
In a 2002 study, a team of scientists led by Marshall found that people with hay fever experienced more sadness, apathy, lethargy, and fatigue in late summer, when ragweed season peaks. “That’s just the opposite of what we see in people who don’t have allergies,” says Marshall. Usually, people tend to have a more positive mood in summer, he says.
Making Sense of the Allergy-Depression Link
What’s going on? Some experts explain the allergy-depression connection in psychological terms, focusing primarily on the heavy emotional toll of chronic allergy symptoms.
There’s “no evidence that there is a causality between allergic rhinitis and depression,” says Richard F. Lockey, MD, professor of medicine and director of the division of allergy and immunology at the University if South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa. “But if you can’t breathe through your nose, if you have headaches, if you can’t sleep well at night, there’s a good chance you’re going to feel depressed.”