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Interview Resilient to Climate Change and Preventing Allergies

Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann explains how climate change affects our health. The environmental medicine specialist focuses on the prevention of allergic diseases such as hay fever and neurodermatitis.

Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann explains how climate change affects our health. The environmental medicine specialist focuses on the prevention of allergic diseases such as hay fever and neurodermatitis.

"Prevention is my greatest goal: By prevention I want to reduce the number of allergic persons to about 10 per cent."


Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann, Director of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Helmholtz Munich

Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann seeks to understand which environmental factors make us ill and which protective factors from the environment keep us healthy. Her focus is on diseases that occur more frequently or show more severe symptoms because of climate change. The clinical focus is on chronic inflammatory diseases, such as allergies and atopic dermatitis. The overall goal of her work is the prevention and therapy of environmental diseases and the climate resilience of the healthcare system.

"One Health" is often mentioned when talking about climate change – what does that mean?

CTH: Humans influence the climate and climate change affects us humans and the environment. The effects of changes in ecosystems affect us all over again – you can't look at them separately: Ultimately, everything influences us humans: Air pollutants, food and, as a possible factor, climate change.

Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann explains the links between climate change and health.

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How does climate change affect our health?

CTH: Climate change has an impact on cardiovascular diseases, lung diseases and diabetes, for example. I am particularly interested in the links between climate change and allergic diseases such as hay fever and neurodermatitis. 

How does climate change affect allergies?

CTH: Climate change is one factor that increases allergies, that makes people with allergies suffer more. It affects ecosystems in two ways: It affects plants and pollen, and these changes also affect our health. But what triggers climate change also makes us more susceptible to allergies ourselves – for example, air pollutants make our immune system more sensitive and susceptible to allergies.

What effects does climate change have on the environment?

CTH: We see four effects: Firstly, the pollen season is getting longer. Secondly, we have more pollen – CO2 is a growth factor - also for pollen. In addition, the pollen itself is becoming more aggressive: A pollen that is surrounded by more carbon dioxide during growth releases more of the special proteins – so-called allergens – that ultimately trigger an allergy. The fourth point is new pollen: Pollen from ragweed for example, the common ragweed.

Ragweed is often mentioned in connection with climate change – why?

CTH: Ragweed clearly shows how climate change is affecting the ecosystem: Ragweed has newly colonized Germany since there have been permanently milder temperatures. Each ragweed plant can release up to one billion flower pollen, and this pollen is also significantly more aggressive than the pollen of native plants. Even a concentration of more than ten pollen grains per cubic meter of air can trigger severe allergic reactions. If you look at this aggressive pollen under an electron microscope, you can see visual similarities with the coronavirus. It looks like a spiky ball. The proteins in ragweed are very small and can penetrate deep into the lungs and trigger severe allergic reactions. This not only causes sneezing, but even allergic asthma.

Which environmental factors trigger our immune system towards allergies?

CTH: These are so-called ultrafine particles, the finest particles, such as those found in diesel soot, but also other air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and ozone. All these factors arise from combustion, especially from road traffic in cities.

Expert knowledge: Ultrafine particles

Ultrafine particles (UFP) are very small particles in the air, with a diameter of less than 0.1 µm (100 nm). 

In detail: How do air pollutants harm?

CTH: Our mucous membranes are actually a wonderful barrier for pollutants or for pollen and the substances released by pollen. However, air pollutants cause for example that the mucous membranes to become inflamed and consequently leaky. Allergens such as pollen proteins can then enter the body through the mucous membranes, alerting our immune system and directing it towards allergies. This means that the path is first paved and then an allergy can develop.

During heatwaves, many people become aware of the issue of climate change. As an environmental physician, what do you think of this flash of attention – also in the media?

Climate change is noticeable all year round, just not as much in the media. And for people with allergies, it is often not these short-term events that make their lives more difficult. This and the fact that an allergic disease is not a trivial matter should definitely be in the public consciousness. 

We pay up to €151 billion per year in Europe – including, of course, the loss of working hours. Because people who can't concentrate because of allergy symptoms can't work. My goal is to explore ways of making the body resistant to climate change.

"Atopic dermatitis flares up in the heat!"


Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann 

CTH: In addition to hay fever, atopic dermatitis is also a condition associated with allergies, which is exacerbated by climate change: Atopic dermatitis really flares up in the heat!

Atopic dermatitis is the first atopic disease in the life course: it is the gateway for the development of allergies because it makes the skin barrier permeable to allergens, as described above. As a scientist, I see neurodermatitis as a switch point where - with early and professional treatment - I can prevent the development of allergies in the future. My motivation is to create prevention and I am grateful to have the opportunity to research preventive measures in the research environment of Helmholtz Munich. Because prevention costs money.

Those affected often suffer a lot - what is your advice?

CTH: Everyone should know that many allergies are treatable: Specific immunotherapy, also known as hyposensitization, is a causal treatment that does more than just alleviate symptoms. Helmholtz Munich's online portal, the Allergy Information Service provides those affected with verified information on prevention, diagnosis, therapy, and new research findings in the field of allergies. Because expert knowledge helps people to live independently with an allergic disease.

Latest update: April 2024.