As soon as springtime rolls around, there are plenty of people who are eager to get out in the sunshine after a long and dreary winter. However, there are many other people who fear the onset of spring, or as they call it – allergy season. Allergic reactions are a completely normal part of life, and whether you are sensitive to ragweed, pollen, cat dander, dust, avocados or even shoe leather, your body responds in a rather similar way.
When the runny nose, itchy eyes, headache, congestion, upset stomach, skin irritation, rash, coughing, diarrhea or sinus pressure starts up, people are quick to turn to anti-allergenic medicine, which can often clear symptoms up in short order.The question is, how do anti-allergens help your body go from a leaky, miserable mess to a normal, sniffle-free human in such a short time? How do anti-allergens suppress allergies?
Short Answer: Anti-allergens don’t suppress allergies, but they do mitigate or prevent the allergic response within the body, since most allergens are not harmful. The body is sensitive to these foreign substances, and can often react violently, so anti-allergens, anti-histamines, decongestants and other common drugs are used to treat the body’s “overreaction”.
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The Allergic Response
As most of you know, the immune system is critical for protecting human health. With its white blood cells, antibodies, and fine-tuned sensing system for pathogens, bacteria, viruses and fungi, it works hard to keep us safe throughout our lives. However, sometimes the immune system takes its job too seriously, and struggles to see the difference between a harmful pathogen and a relatively harmless substance that may have been inhaled or landed on the skin. These latter substances are called allergens.
When people say they “have an allergy”, it means that they have discovered that their body is particularly sensitive to a certain allergen. You shouldn’t classify an allergy as a “disease”; it is simply the result of an overprotective immune system.
Now, in terms of that overprotective behavior….
When the immune system of a person with an allergy encounters an allergen, IgE antibodies are rapidly produced that are specific to that allergen. These antibodies bind themselves to mast cells within the tissues of the body, particularly concentrated in areas that are exposed to allergens – such as mucus membranes (i.e., the eyes, nose, ears, mouth), the skin, stomach and lungs. These mast cells also store up defensive compounds and resources they will need to “fight off” allergens in the future, including a key chemical called histamine.
The next time the body is exposed to that particular allergen, the histamines are released, which result in the itchy eyes, runny nose, congestion and mucus secretion that we all recognize as an “allergic reaction”. There is usually a rapid response of the body when they are first exposed to the allergen and the chemicals/histamines are released, as well as a later response, as more inflammatory cells shift to that part of the body to take up the fight.
These histamines also cause blood vessels to expand in size, increasing the flow of blood to the affected area. This is all done in an effort to defend the body against a potentially dangerous pathogen – although we know that most allergens are actually harmless.
When those annoying symptoms of allergies begin, millions of people around the world turn to anti-allergenic medication.
Anti-Allergens to the Rescue
The most common forms of allergy medicine are called antihistamines. As the name implies, these work against the histamines released by the mast cells, which in turn cause our allergic symptoms.
Antihistamines function by releasing proteins that bind to the receptor sites of histamines, meaning that those histamines can no longer be activated to stimulate an allergic response. Imagine that your tissues are doors with thousands of locks, each perfectly designed for certain proteins and chemicals (keys). Antihistamines ensure that the keyholes for histamines are already filled in, effectively stopping the allergic response of your body.
Since there is a wide range of allergic responses by the body, there are other medications that specifically address certain symptoms. For example, you may use decongestants to combat the excess mucus secretion (caused by histamines) that occurs in your sinus cavities, helping you get rid of your runny or stuffed-up nose. If your allergy symptoms tend to affect your respiratory system, causing inflammation of your airways, tightness in your chest or difficulty breathing, you may choose to use bronchodilators, inhalers, or concentrated forms of synthetic antibodies.
Regardless of the strategy you choose, the intent is the same – prevent the immune system from overreacting to a genuinely harmless substance. In most cases, the immune response is far more serious than any potential danger posed by the allergen, which is why people are so quick to use medication to block this critical – albeit flawed – function of the immune system.
Many people assume that being allergic to something is a lifelong curse, with no possible cure, dooming them to a life of antihistamines and inhalers. It is true that most of your allergies are determined very early in life, typically through genetic predisposition, environmental exposure and your age of exposure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all allergies are permanent. Some people undergo years of regular allergy “shots” or oral tablets, which help to accustom the body to harmless allergens without triggering an allergic response. If you’ve ever been annoyed with your friends who never seem to struggle with allergies, this might be your best option!
Dietary and behavioral changes can also have a major impact on the functioning of the immune system, and can increase the accuracy of the allergic response. Technically, this isn’t “curing” your allergies, as those antibodies present on your mast cells are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to fully eliminate. However, allergists can provide immunotherapy options to significantly minimize the severity of your allergies, to the point where your body might not respond at all!
What a wonderful world it would be where everyone could play with dogs and cats, go for a springtime stroll, and eat anything they want without any fear of an allergic reaction!