Many people think of allergies as nothing more than sniffles. However, nothing could be more far from the truth. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States affecting the productivity and quality of life of 40 to 50 million people, or more than 20 percent of the population.
Actually, an allergy is an adverse immune system response induced by exposure to a substance, named an allergen, resulting in harmful tissue injury upon subsequent exposures. Normally immune systems identify foreign invaders and send white blood cells to destroy infections. Unfortunately for us allergy sufferers, our immune systems incorrectly identify nontoxic substances as invaders and our white blood cells overreact causing more damage to our bodies than invaders would. These inappropriate hypersensitive responses vary from sneezing, watery eyes, stuffy sinuses, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, itching, hives/skin rashes, headaches, and fatigue, to potentially life-threatening situations. In addition, secondary bacterial infections can set in including sinusitis, and ear infections.
Upon initial exposure to an allergen, symptoms may not even be experienced even though the immune system becomes sensitized to it. First, immune cells called macrophages engulf the allergen and link up with toxin-fighting white blood cells. Next, other white blood cells produce a protein called IgE, which is programmed to react to the allergen. Then, the allergen-specific IgE antibodies attach to mast cells in the digestive tract, skin, or in mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat, or upper airway. These cells store allergy-producing chemicals including histamines, which are responsible for the allergic reaction. When allergen particles fit in between two IgE proteins creating linked pairs, the mast cells break open and release histamine and other chemicals, such as eosinophils, causing inflammation, increased secretions, itching, or airway spasms.
Anything breathed in, eaten, or touched is a potential allergen. Common types of allergens include dust mites, pollens, metals, cosmetics, animal dander, latex, food, insect venom, medicine, food additives, chemicals, and mold. In addition, many sufferers react to multiple substances.
Allergy reactions are categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. Mild reactions affect a specific area of the body but do not spread and are similar to a cold, for example, watery eyes, and sneezing. However, moderate reaction symptoms spread to other body areas for instance a spreading rash or difficulty breathing. A severe allergic reaction is anaphylaxis which is a rare, life-threatening emergency affecting the entire body. Anaphylaxis progresses rapidly to serious upper airway swelling resulting in difficulty swallowing and breathing, accompanied by dizziness and mental confusion due to a rapid drop in blood pressure.
When allergy symptoms reoccur or occur longer than a couple weeks, make an appointment to be medically evaluated. Some sufferers obtain relief over longer periods of time with immunotherapy, named allergy shots. In conclusion, allergies cannot be prevented but are treated by making changes in your environment, and by taking over-the-counter or prescription medications such as antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal sprays.