Allergies are a very common reaction that affects 1 in 5 people in some period of their lives. Like the causes, the symptoms are numerous too and can vary from mild, hardly noticeable, to possibly life-threatening. But before we go into a deeper analysis of the whole allergy process, we should answer a basic question.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is our immune system’s response to a foreign substance that enters or comes into contact with the body and usually is not considered harmful. These unknown substances are called allergens, and they can include certain foods, pet dander, bee venom or pollen. However, anything can be an allergen if the immune system has an adverse reaction. An allergen can be something you ingest, inhale into your lungs, touch or inject into your body.
When a person actually is allergic to a certain substance, their immune system reacts as a defense system and tries to destroy and remove it from the body. How does it work? Well, the immune system usually adapts to the environment. For example, when a body encounters pollen, it should realize it is harmless. But this is not the case with a 100% rate.
The immune system’s job is to save us from anything which puts our health in any kind of danger. Depending on the allergen, our body reacts in different ways – rash, hive, low blood pressure, asthma attacks, inflammation, sneezing, cough, sneezing, scratchy throat, runny nose, and even death. The list of symptoms is quite long, but one thing is for sure – there is no cure for allergies. You can control them with prevention and treatment, but do not overlook it, as it is one of the world’s most common yet still neglected diseases which affects all generations. This leads us to our next question.
Why have I become allergic?
The human immune system is very much like our sensory system – it receives input from the environment, processes it and sends an adaptive response. Its primary task is, as mentioned above, to recognize foreign organisms like bacteria and parasites in order to neutralize the possible infection and prevent a disease from further spreading by disposing of ill or malfunctioning internal cells. This is done through a process in which millions of antibodies are produced to play the role of recognition agents that provoke an immune response. After these antibodies become activated through an interactive process with an unknown organism, they are mass-produced by immune cells and circulate our body in order to form an immunological ‘belt’. Vaccinations work on the same principle, as weakened components of microbes which cause a certain disease to allow the body to make itself ready for launching a big immune response when the problem-causing microbe is faced in the future.
When it comes to our immune system and its defensive role, we can distinguish two types of reactions – if it attacks our body, it is an autoimmune disorder, and if it attacks a harmless protein coming from our environment, it is an allergy.
It all starts in the early stages of life, as a normal course of childhood development when early exposure to parasites and bacteria allow the immune system to develop regulatory mechanisms and keep everything under control. However, in environments lacking exposure to these organisms, this ‘adjustment’ fails to occur and children prone to allergies begin to develop an inflammatory response against normally harmless proteins from their environment.
Allergies risk factors
Moreover, there are some so-called risk factors which make you prone to developing an allergy:
- – If allergies or asthma run in your family for generations, e.g. if one parent is allergic, a child has a 30-50% chance of inheriting the allergy, yet not necessarily the parent’s type. But if both parents are allergic, the children have a 60-80% likelihood of inheriting allergies.
- – It is proven that the period of childhood is the most likely to develop an allergy.
- – If you already have asthma, there is a high chance of suffering from an allergy.
- – The environment also plays an important role in this process as it either protects you from developing an allergy or adapts you to it. Some exposures provoke certain allergies in individuals and their children (such as high consumption of junk food and cigarette smoke), but others, on the other hand, are protective (for example exposure to farm animals and high-fiber diets).
- – Children who suffer from viral or bacterial infections of the upper respiratory system (throat, nose and bronchial tubes) during the first 6 months of their life have higher chances of developing allergies or asthma later in life.
What is the hygiene hypothesis?
Over time experts in the field have developed the hygiene hypothesis for autoimmune and allergic diseases. According to the hypothesis, the decreasing rate of infections in western and other developing countries is the consequence of an increased incidence of autoimmune and allergic diseases. The hypothesis itself is based on epidemiological data of exclusively migration studies, which show that subjects that migrate from a low-rate to high-rate country acquire the immune disorders at the first generation. The theory suggests that an individual children’s environment can be too ‘harmless’ to stimulate or challenge their immune system in order to respond to different threats in childhood. After a child is born, the immune system must start to recognize antigens that may cause dangerous infections, but if the child’s environment is too ‘clean’, the immune system may not react in the right way when the child encounters viruses, fungi, bacteria or parasites, as well as other environmental triggers such as fungal spores, pollen or pet dander, which later in life leads to allergies, asthma and other immune-related complications.
In order to completely understand how the hygiene hypothesis is linked to a high percentage of people suffering from asthma and other diseases such as multiple sclerosis or ulcerative colitis in developed countries, we must establish how the immune system develops, matures and regulates itself.
- A stimulated immune system causes a certain amount of T cells, B cells, macrophages, eosinophils, and killer cells to proliferate, causing some of them to attack infectious organisms directly and others to produce cytokines and antibodies that cause these attacks.
- The theory suggests that lack or delays in exposure to normal bacteria in the body and disease-causing agents provoke a weaker reaction of the immune system, thus causing a weaker ability of the immune system to suppress the inflammatory response when it is faced in the future.
It must be emphasized that the point of this hypothesis is not to suggest the parents expose their infants and children to bacteria and other infectious organisms to stimulate their immune response. It is suggested, however, that both infants and children may be over-protected from other children and the environment in general, which affects the normal development of their immune system. Protection or isolation of different kinds (sterile foods, social isolation, lack of outdoor activities) possibly makes children prone to developing an immune-related disease. The only thing left to do is to wait for future data which may reveal whether humans can be ‘too clean’ or not.
How does an allergy diagnosis process look like?
An allergy test is taken by a specialist to determine whether a body has an allergic reaction to a certain substance or not. It can be in the form of a blood test, an elimination diet or a skin test. There are three main types of allergens: inhaled which come in contact with lungs, nostrils or throat, ingested that are present in certain foods and contact allergens that come in touch with your skin in order to provoke a reaction.
Allergy tests are based on exposing an individual to a very small amount of a particular allergen and recording the reaction of his body. According to the World Allergy Organization, asthma is responsible for over 250 000 on an annual basis. These statistics can be avoided with proper allergy care and testing which can help you in three aspects – to determine which particular allergens harm your body, to get the proper medication in order to treat your allergies and to be able to avoid your allergy triggers.
In case you are planning to get yourself tested, make sure to stop taking medications like antihistamines, heartburn treatment medications, antibody asthma treatments, benzodiazepines, and tricyclic antidepressants as they can affect the test results.
Allergy testing process
1) Skin tests:
|An allergen is placed in a liquid which is then put on a part of your skin with a specially designed tool that lightly punctures the allergen into the surface of the skin, followed by closed monitoring of how skin reacts to the foreign substance. In case the redness, swelling or itchiness appear, the test is positive to that allergen.
|Requires injection of a small amount of allergen into the dermis layer of the skin, all again monitored by the doctor.
|Includes adhesive patches loaded with certain allergens and their placement on the skin. The patches remain on your body for after what they are reviewed after 48 and 96 hours after application.
2) Blood tests
In case there is a severe allergic reaction to a skin test, the doctor will have your blood tested in a laboratory for the presence of antibodies that fight potentially harmful allergens. The test is called ImmunoCAP and it has a high success rate when it comes to detecting antibodies to major allergens.
3) Elimination diet
Testing in the form of the elimination diet may help your doctor establish which foods are causing your allergic reaction. It involves removing certain foods from your nutrition and later adding them back in, thus helping to discover which food causes allergic reactions.
Of course, there are few side effects of allergy testing. Apart from swelling, redness and mild itching, small bumps known as wheals may appear on the skin. Normally these symptoms disappear within a few hours, but sometimes they last for a few days. In rarest cases allergy tests may produce reactions that require medical attention, so make sure to call your doctor if you develop a severe reaction right upon leaving his office.
What are the most common allergic conditions?
|house dust mites, animal dander, molds, pollen and cockroach droppings, tobacco smoke, viral infections, exercise, stress
|coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, trouble breathing
|food (peanuts, eggs, nuts, and shellfish), antibiotics (penicillin and sulfa), insect stings or bites, latex, blood transfusions, bacterial and viral infections, pet dander, pollen, plants (poison oak and poison ivy)
|itchy skin patches and bumps that are more red or pale than the surrounding skin
|food (peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, cow’s milk, and eggs), medicine, insect stings, latex
|trouble breathing, swelling, tightness of the throat, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, fainting, rapid heartbeat, cardiac arrest
|Eczema (atopic dermatitis)
|dry skin, irritants (metals, cleansers, fragrances, etc.), stress, infections, sweating, pollen
|dry and sensitive skin, red and inflamed skin, very bad itching, areas of swelling, oozing or crusting, scaly patches of skin, dark-colored patches of skin
|irritants (detergents, shampoos, nickel), antibiotic creams, plants (poison ivy and mango), spray insecticides
|red rash, itching, dry and cracked skin, bumps and blisters, swelling, tenderness, burning
How can I treat my allergies?
Allergies can be treated with over-the-counter and prescription medications, but with allergy shots as well. In general, there is no cure for this disease, but there are several effective ‘helpers’ which can help ease and treat annoying symptoms.
A group of biologically naturally-originated active polysaccharides that have a scientifically proven immunomodulation effect. β-glucans are one of the main active components of medicinal and edible mushrooms. These polysaccharides come in various forms, but the main one in fungi is known as 1-3, 1-6, also referred to as (1-3)(1-6)beta-d-glucans. They are the most prescribed natural medication to fight and prevent allergies and are often consumed on a daily basis as allergy prevention and immunity booster.
Help reduce general allergy symptoms and can be taken as a liquid, nasal spray, pills or eyedrops (Clarinex, Astelin, Optivar, Tavist, Alavert, Cetirizine)
Relieve congestion, for short-term purposes only as longer use, can make symptoms worse (Sudafed, Afrin, Visine)
Combination allergy drugs
May raise blood pressure, some of them contain both an antihistamine and a decongestant to relieve multiple allergy symptoms (Allegra-D, Benadryl, Naphcon-A, Semprex-D, Dymista, Actifed)
Help reduce inflammation and swelling, must be taken daily to be beneficial for a human body (Beconase, Nasonex, Omnaris, Deltasone, Maxidrex)
Mast Cell Stabilizers
Used to treat mild to moderate inflammation, also must be taken for a longer period in order to have an effect (Opticrom, Alomide, Alocril, Alamat)
Relieve asthma and nasal allergies, available only with a doctor’s prescription (Singulair)
Allergy shots are one of the most effective methods in case you suffer from an allergy for more than 3 months per year as you are exposed to gradually increasing levels of the allergen to help build up your immune system’s tolerance
It is safe to say that a high percentage of us, including older generations as well, stood no chance against developing a reaction on a certain allergen, and future generations are yet to face the same problem, but nowadays it is easier than ever to protect ourselves as modern medicine has come a long way in helping our immune system fight against all these ‘silent intruders’, so why not do our best and do our part in this battle too?