To vanquish a menacing or evil foe, we sometimes wage violent wars, both on a societal and individual scale. The energy expended for these battles, and the collateral damage that occurs, is regrettable but acceptable. But when we find ourselves locked in combat with an entity not clearly dangerous to us, the “cost” of the conflict becomes unreasonable. Allergies are an example of this error occurring in our own bodies! While our immune system regularly identifies threatening invaders and struggles mightily to thwart their incursion with incredibly effective, awe-inspiring force, it is not wonderful when this same system perceives harmless entities, such as pollen, peanuts or dog dander, as a hazard to our body. The resulting situation is at best uncomfortable but can be downright dangerous.
Like a fine armory, our immune system has many weapons at its disposal. The system is imperfect, however, in distinguishing friend from foe. Poison ivy, for instance, presents no threat to our body, and in fact could be a nutritive green, except that a majority of people have cells in their skin that are “primed” to respond to it as a toxin. Peanuts are a wonderfully beneficial protein and vitamin source, yet a considerable portion of the population develop a dramatic and life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis if exposed. And our wonderful pets, our cats and dogs, our ferrets and bunnies, can sometimes trigger the flu-like symptoms of cough, runny nose and itchy eyes despite our profound affection for them. This condition whereby the body reacts to a “friend “ as if it were perilous, has spawned an entire medical specialty, Allergy and Immunology.
Immunoglobulins (Ig) are large protein molecules that play an essential role in protecting our bodies from illness. Subset type E (“IgE”) is useful for fighting off parasites and is usually present in very small amounts. When IgE is in excess, however, it is the major culprit in typical allergies problems. When activated, it binds to special cells in our blood and tissues–called mast cells and basophils–and prompts them to release a chemical called histamine. Histamine is what makes our tissues become swollen and excrete large amounts of watery secretions: it can also provoke wheezing and very low blood pressure. The term “allergen” refers a non hazardous item that induces an allergic reaction. Individuals with allergies typically have over ten times the normal amount of IgE in their systems, all programmed to react to a particular allergen.
Scientists do not yet know why some folks develop high IgE levels against common/non perilous substance. Fortunately, though, there have been advances in preventing and treating the vexing symptoms that this unnecessary immune reaction causes. One of the cornerstones of allergy medicine is helping sufferers determine exactly what in their environment kindles the unwarranted inflammation. A careful history, blood tests and/or skin tests can help pinpoint the cause. Once the allergen has been identified, a proven strategy to stay well is to simply avoid exposure to that item! Hence, patients with dust or mold allergies are advised to avoid carpet and curtains that may harbor these entities. poison ivy victims should don protective gear when gardening, peanuts should be totally avoided by peanut-allergic persons….sounds simple, doesn’t it , until you get to pet , grass, tree allergies and the like–thing you cannot or choose not to shun.
When allergen avoidance is not practical, there are several strategies to reduce allergy symptoms. Anti-histamines work to block histamine from entering your cells. These include medicines such as Benadryl, Claritin and Allegra. Another commonly used prescription, Singulair, works by blocking inflammation in the respiratory tissues linked to allergies. Steroids, either in pill, inhaler or nasal spray form, are immensely effective by calming all aspects of the immune system BUT , due to their broad range of action, the pills have the most side effects and so are reserved for more serious events, such as an allergic asthma attack or severe/body-wide poison ivy. If a person is suffering from the most ominous type of allergic manifestation, anaphylaxis, then treatment to reverse the deadly low blood pressure and airway tightening is required. This is an epinephrine injection (aka “shot of adrenaline” or” epi-pen”). Epinephrine only temporarily reverses allergy symptoms and has no preventive or long term treatment role, but it saves lives when needed. Anyone with severe allergies should carry one.
Prevention is the best treatment; this holds for allergies as well. So while medications can be essential to reversing allergy symptoms, the most definitive therapy is to “retrain” the immune system so that it stops producing the inappropriate IgE in first place. This is done under the careful supervision of the medical specialist; once the allergen(s) are ascertained, a solution is produced with extremely small amounts of those substances and are injected into the patient’s skin. Over a period of months to years, the amount of those substances is slowly increased. It has been found that in this scenario, the body will start to produce a non-IgE antibody, one that does NOT cause watery nose/itchy eyes/asthma, etc. So while doctors cannot yet get your body to ignore all things harmless, they can retrain your system to create “quiet” antibodies rather than the bothersome IgE.
If you suffer with mild allergies, try figuring out what might be the cause and avoid it. Use oral antihistamine and steroid nasal sprays to control irksome symptoms if need be. However, if your problem is severe or if you’ve EVER experienced anaphylaxis, see your doctor to determine what prevention or treatment strategy is best for you. The human immune system is magnificently powerful and effective, but when aimed at the wrong thing, it can be a serious risk to your health and well-being.