You’ve likely heard of them and possibly suffered their unpleasant effects. Allergies are becoming increasingly prevalent. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports that approximately 25% of Americans, or 60 million people, suffer some sort of asthmatic or allergic reaction to external stimuli such as air, water, food, drugs or plants. But what are allergies exactly? And how come we acquire them?
Most well-known allergies (known as Type I Hypersensitivity) are really a malfunction of our immune system which causes our body to become hypersensitized and respond immunologically to normally non-immunogenic substances. These substances that cause our bodies to react in this manner are known as allergens.
A Viennese pediatrician, Clemens Von Pirquet, first coined the word “allergies” in 1906 after he discovered that certain symptoms from his patients could possibly be a reaction to outside allergens, such as dust, pollen, and particular foods.
Allergy Signs and Symptoms
You’ll know allergies are starting up once again if you undergo swelling in certain areas of your body. The swelling represents a local or systemic inflammatory response, induced by the presence of allergens. For example, if allergies affect your nose, you may have to swell of the nasal mucous membrane (allergic rhinitis). During this condition, you’ll likely find yourself doing the “nasal salute” more than normal because the itchiness and irritation will cause you to wipe your nose in an upwards direction.
However, if the allergies affect your eyes, itching and redness of the conjunctiva frequently follow. Additional common signs of allergic reactions are wheezing and difficulty breathing, bronchoconstriction, and occasionally full-blown asthma attacks. You might also have various skin rashes, like eczema, hives, or contact dermatitis.
Systemic allergic responses are often more serious compared to localized symptoms. Depending on the severity of the response, allergic reactions may cause skin reactions, bronchoconstriction (narrowing of the lung’s airways), edema, low blood pressure, coma, and even death.
Hay fever is an example of a minor allergic reaction caused by airborne pollens. Besides environmental factors, allergies may likewise be set off from medications.
So why do we get allergies?
Our immune system, starting from birth, becomes a well-trained and conditioned biological defense weapon that safeguards our bodies from harmful substances. The immune system’s biomechanics are so impressive that it can identify and destroy most foreign invaders. Yet, as amazing as it is, our immune system sometimes makes mistakes. Therefore we experience allergies, which, as previously mentioned, result because of a hypersensitized immune system.
The hypersensitive immune system mistakes an otherwise harmless substance as harmful, and thus attacks the material with a level of aggressiveness which is greater than necessary. Because of this, we may experience problems ranging anywhere from mildly inconvenient, to miserable, to complete failure of our body’s major organs.
How does our immune system enter a hypersensitive state?
There are multiple ideas about this. One theory suggests that allergies are nearly always triggered by protein. Some people possess defective genetic codes and their white blood cells, or lymphocytes (the good stuff that makes up your immune system), are not able to properly distinguish between the threatening and non-threatening proteins.
So, for instance with a shellfish allergy — When you eat shellfish and ingest the protein, your white blood cells believe that a foreign substance is attempting to invade your body. Consequently, they produce large quantities of antibodies which bind themselves to mast cells, which contain granules of histamine. The binding of allergens to antibodies on the surface of these mast cells leads to the release of the histamine, which is what causes the symptoms of allergy. This process represents the sensitizing exposure and is the reason why you may all of a suddenly develop allergies.
It really is an amazing process, and it is remarkable how well the immune system works and protects us most of the time. Unfortunately, it is not foolproof and as long as that remains true, there will be allergy sufferers.