Lifestyle A man having an allergic reaction to a plant

Published on March 20th, 2013 | by Joe Starks

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Fitness Jargonbuster: Allergies

Most of us know someone who suffers from allergies. It’s one of the most common chronic conditions and it is so multifaceted that most of us can’t tell what an allergy is and what isn’t anymore, because allergy has become an umbrella term for many different ailments and some simple symptoms. How come the same disease is caused by so many different things like food or latex? Is it curable? Why are some people so different that they can’t stand everyday things like pollen and eggs? We will try to answer these tough but critical questions in a simple yet understandable manner below.

What is an Allergy?

An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system. It is called an overreaction because the body defends itself from non-toxic substances as if they were dangerous pathogens. If you have a reaction to a toxin or a bacteria/virus, then it is not an allergy; it’s part of the correct self defense mechanism of the body.

In a nutshell, the immune system is active on two distinct levels:

  • Cellular immunity, where cells of the body personally take out pathogens
  • Humoral (chemical) immunity, where the body fights off pathogens using substances like antibodies and inflammatory factors

The macrophages are part of the cellular immunity and will actually consume the pathogens, rendering them unable to interact with the body any further. These macrophages will then show those pathogens to the leucocytes which will start creating antibodies against the pathogen which will neutralize it. Sometimes parts of those pathogens which are shown to the leucocytes are very similar chemically to non pathogenic substances. The antibodies created then will attack both the pathogens and its similar non pathogenic substances. If this happens you will start to experience an immune system disease.

Another way to get allergic to a non-pathogenic substance is by getting “sensitized” to it. For example, if you get stung by a bee your body might get sensitized to the substance and the next time you’re stung you will get a major anaphylactic reaction. This doesn’t mean you were allergic to begin with, instead the first sting actually made you allergic.

Not all immune system diseases are allergies though. Only if the substance your immune system overreacts to is usually a harmless substance (which is NOT part of your body) can the disease be called an allergy. The substance which causes the immune system’s reactions is then called an allergen. Common types of allergens are pollen, gluten, eggs, nuts, latex etc.

Note that the “allergen” label does not make those substances any more dangerous for healthy people. Eggs are just eggs if you are not suffering from an egg allergy as they do not cause allergies by themselves. So, removing a potential “allergen” from your diet ONLY because someone else has an allergy to it and you’re afraid to get allergic too is not scientific.

Why are some allergies deadly and others not so?

The major factor is how great a reaction your body has to the allergen causing the allergy. The worst type of reaction is called an anaphylactic shock, during which the whole body reacts severely to the allergen and it can easily lead to death. Histamines are released from various tissues in your body and your airways tighten due to the inflammation. The person going through anaphylaxis may then suffocate if no correct actions are taken. If you are close to anyone who is that severely allergic to a substance you should always have an EpiPen in your bag, which is a pocket sized quick shot of epinephrine and can be lifesaving. It is good to have consulted a doctor about that first though as Epinephrine is not without danger, especially for some individuals with heart problems. Common causes of anaphylaxis are insect bites, food and drug allergies.

Other allergies might just cause a little rash, some sneezing, headaches, difficulty breathing and other nonlethal but very annoying symptoms.

Is there a cure?

The short, scientific answer is no, but nothing is that simple in medicine. There might not be a simple cure but there are many ways to combat the symptoms to a point which will make you feel almost allergy free. There are plenty of antihistamines and other medicines that will combat inflammation. Also you can have shots to get desensitized, although this does not work for all allergies and is not effective every time. Sometimes allergies get less annoying or go completely away as you grow up. Especially when it comes to small children, sensitivity to a certain food or plant might be gone by the time they reach adulthood.

What to do if you think you might be allergic?

You make an appointment with a certified doctor who specialized in allergies, commonly known as an allergist. He or she will then give you your option and help you soothe your symptoms, or at least tell you whether you have is just a rash/common cold or a real allergy.

Can you tell an allergy apart from a chronic infection?

Sometimes the differences might be very subtle. A rash from a fungus might feel like a rash from an allergy, and a common cold that keeps getting back might feel like an allergy too. It is best to check in with a doctor to see if you symptoms are a chronic infection or an allergy.

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