Why Do We Develop Allergies?
Allergies are very common. 20% of Americans have some kind of allergic reaction to food, water or even air.
As common as they are, what are allergies and why do we have them?
Malfunctions of the Immune System
Allergies (Type I Hypersensitivity) are actually malfunctions of our immune systems. Our bodies become hypersensitive and react immunologically to typically non-immunogenic substances. The substances that cause our bodies to become this way are called "allergens."
Hay fever is actually one example of minor allergies caused by airborne pollen. But aside from environmental factors, allergies may also be triggered by medications.
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In 1906, Viennese pediatrician, Clemens von Pirquet, first coined the term “allergies” after he observed that certain symptoms of his patients were in direct response to outside allergens, like dust, pollen, or certain foods.
Signs and Symptoms of Allergies
You know your allergies are starting up again if you experience swelling in parts of your body. There are two types of swelling, called a "local" or "systemic" inflammatory response to allergens.
An example of a local inflammatory response is when your allergies affect you in the nose and experience swelling of the nasal mucosa (allergic rhinitis). In this case, you will probably find yourself performing the “nasal salute” because your unusually itchy nose will force you to wipe your nose in an upward direction. If the allergies affect your eyes, redness and itching of the conjunctiva often follows.
Other common signs of allergies are wheezing and dyspnoea, bronchoconstriction, and sometimes outright attacks of asthma. You may also experience various rashes, such as eczema, hives, and contact dermatitis. Some of these symptoms fall into the "systemic" inflammatory response.
Systemic allergic responses are more serious than the local response. Depending on the severity of your allergic reaction, allergies can cause cutaenous reactions, bronchoconstriction, edema, hypertension, coma, and even death.
Why do we get allergies?
Imagine your immune system as the ultimate action hero. It is a well-trained and disciplined bio-weapon that protects your bodies from harmful substances. It can identify and destroy many foreign invaders before they have a chance to create trouble.
As amazing as our immune system is, however, it occasionally makes mistakes. These mistakes come in the form of allergies produced by a hypersensitive immune system.
The hypersensitized immune system identifies an otherwise harmless substance as bad and harmful, and then ferociously attacks the substance. As a result, we experience problems that can range from mildly inconvenient and uncomfortable symptoms to total failure of major organs of the body.
How does the immune system go into a hypersensitized state?
There are several schools of thought on why the immune system goes into a hypersensitized mode. Some theories state that allergies are almost always triggered by protein. Certain persons have faulty genetic codes so that their lymphocytes or the white blood cells (the stuff that your immune system is made of) are unable to properly distinguish between the threatening and the non-threatening proteins. For example, when you ingest protein from shellfish, your lymphocytes think that the substance is trying to invade the body. As a result, they produce large amounts of antibodies which attach themselves to mast cells and basophils throughout the body. This is known as the sensitizing exposure and this is the very reason why you suddenly develop allergies.
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