Local researchers said Thursday they have uncovered a previously undetected source of asthma and other respiratory allergies.
The culprits are fleas _ or more precisely, the microscopic body parts of deceased fleas.
In fact, little flea pieces are so prevalent they are only a small jump behind pollen as a cause for respiratory ailments, according to the researchers who conducted a study at the University of South Florida and James A. Haley Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tampa.
Although small in scope, the study could have important ramifications for allergy sufferers, said Dr. Richard F. Lockey, director of the division of Allergy and Immunology at USF.
"This is part of the growing epidemic of asthma," Lockey said, noting that incidents of asthma increased 29 percent nationwide between 1980 and 1987.
The closed atmosphere in many Florida homes, combined with the large number of mostly "indoor pets" who go out occasionally and pick up fleas, contributes to the problem, the researchers said.
Dr. Enrique Fernandez-Caldas, assistant professor of medicine at USF and a nationally recognized expert in allergy and immunology, say people who love their pets may have to face a difficult choice.
"I think you will be hearing more and more about not having pets in homes where people who have allergic reactions live," he said.
Fernandez-Caldas said another remedy is intensive, periodic flea-care treatment including frequent vacuuming of rugs and carpets, yard spraying, the use of indoor foggers and the regular bathing of pets with anti-flea agents.
Although flea bites have long been known as a cause of allergies, the study focused on dead fleas and what happens when their bodies dry out, become brittle, disintegrate and join airborne dust as "flea debris."
Of the 100 people who participated in the study, 18 percent tested positive for flea allergies in a scratch test. That compares with 20 percent who tested positive for pollen allergies.
The study, published this month in the British scholarly journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy is only the first step in this branch of flea research.
"The story is far from finished," Lockey said. "The next step is a "challenge study' where patients will inhale desiccated flea material and be tested for results."
Dr. N. Franklin Adkinson of the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center said he is intrigued by the findings.
"I've never heard of this before," he said. "But 10 years ago, we hadn't heard of dust mites as a cause of asthma either."