All one has to do right now is watch TV to self-diagnose your watery eyes and sneezing as allergies, if you hadn’t already figured that out. Pharmaceutical companies’ marketing has kicked into high gear hawking their anti-allergy, or antihistamine, medications. Ironically, this is exactly what your own immune system is doing if you are among the unfortunate individuals suffering from allergies. Although spring is the allergy season du jour, it is by far not the only time for suffering. Although pollens are produced in the spring, summer and fall, and even winter sometimes, in the springtime the predominant pollens come from budding green trees. In the summer, that wonderfully fragrant smell of freshly cut grass can be terrifying for those with grass allergies, the biggest offender. Brilliant colors of fall are accompanied by an increased incidence of weed pollen, one in particular being ragweed. Pollens are not the only war in town, however. Molds love any damp or wet places, and can also be a component of certain foods. The third most common allergen under trees and grasses is dust mites. You know what they are, those microscopic critters that live in your dust bunnies and pillows and look like like prehistoric monsters under a microscope. Then of course there is Odie, Garfield and other non-human family members. Food, insect stings, chemicals, and medications can all trigger extremely serious allergic reactions. But why is your body killing you with so much love? After all, it does think it is helping you. I can’t answer the why but I can help you understand the how.
Our bodies are equipped with a built in defense system against invading viruses and bacteria. When a dangerous substance is introduced to your body, this defense mechanism, known as the immune system, sends special cells to fight off the invaders. With normal immune systems, the body is able to discriminate between substances that are dangerous and those that are not. When an immune system malfunctions, which it does with many of us at some point in time, it goes into overdrive, attacking the usually harmless substance, sometimes with a vengeance, thinking it’s a bad guy, thus triggering an allergic reaction. It does think it’s helping you, but with just a bit too much love. Upon contact with the offending substance, the special cells react and release chemicals such as histamine, which then becomes responsible for a myriad of potential miseries. Leukotrienes and cytokines are other chemicals involved in the inflammatory process during a reaction, and may explain why sometimes an antihistamine alone may not be enough to control your symptoms. There is another class of drugs known as leukotriene inhibitors which are sometimes given instead of, or in conjunction with, antihistamines, to provide the most effective offense against the allergic response.
The first time an antigen, or “bad guy”, enters your system, you may not have a reaction as the body has not yet formed antibodies against the substance, but with each additional exposure, you may experience progressively worsening reactions. For example, if you are stung by a bee or other insect for the first time and, other than invoking a few choice words for the bee and being itchy and sore for awhile, nothing else happens, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Now I’m not saying that everyone should go out and beg a doctor for an epipen (self-administered epinephrine for a systemic reaction to an allergen) after the first time you are stung, just keep that possibility tucked away somewhere in your easily retrievable memory stores. This way if, after the second sting, it seems to be worse, you may want to alert your provider of this fact because he/she may want to give you a prescription for that epipen. If you begin to have trouble breathing or any other rapidly progressing allergic symptoms, get yourself to the ER STAT. (That’s immediately in medical lingo!)
The processes involved in the mediation of an allergic response are quite complex, but I hope this simplified explanation has served to help you understand a little more about what is happening to you when your body decides, for whatever reason, it wants to go to war with you. In the future I will try to touch on more bases of the allergy ballgame, one inning at a time.