International differences have been associated with the number of individuals within a population that suffer from allergy. Allergic diseases are more common in industrialized countries than in countries that are more traditional or agricultural, and there is a higher rate of allergic disease in urban populations versus rural populations, although these differences are becoming less defined.

Exposure to allergens, especially in early life, is an important risk factor for allergy. Alterations in exposure to microorganisms is another plausible explanation, at present, for the increase inatopic allergy. Endotoxin exposure reduces release of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-?, IFN?, interleukin-10, and interleukin-12 from white blood cells (leukocytes) that circulate in the blood. Certain microbe-sensing proteins, known as Toll-like receptors, found on the surface of cells in the body are also thought to be involved in these processes.

Gut worms and similar parasites are present in untreated drinking water in developing countries, and were present in the water of developed countries until the routine chlorination and purification of drinking water supplies. Recent research has shown that some common parasites, such as intestinal worms (e.g., hookworms), secrete chemicals into the gut wall (and, hence, the bloodstream) that suppress the immune system and prevent the body from attacking the parasite. This gives rise to a new slant on the hygiene hypothesis theory — that co-evolution of man and parasites has led to an immune system that functions correctly only in the presence of the parasites. Without them, the immune system becomes unbalanced and oversensitive. In particular, research suggests that allergies may coincide with the delayed establishment of gut flora in infants. However, the research to support this theory is conflicting, with some studies performed in China and Ethiopia shows an increase in allergy in people infected with intestinal worms. Clinical trials have been initiated to test the effectiveness of certain worms in treating some allergies. It may be that the term ‘parasite’ could turn out to be inappropriate, and in fact a hitherto unsuspected symbiosis is at work. For more information on this topic, see Helminthic therapy.