The How, and Why, of Allergies

Diseases and sicknesses are everywhere. Some last for a few days and cause mild discomfort, while some last for a lifetime. Some are so rare that only a dozen people in the world have them and some infect over one quarter of the world’s population. That is about two billion people. Today I will be talking about a disease that affects about ten percent of the world: allergies.

House dust mites leave behind waste that are a common allergy. Gilles San Martin; House dust mites (Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus); Scale: mite length = 0.3 mm

Allergies are very common nowadays. They are in fact one of the most common chronic diseases. A chronic disease is a disease that lasts for a long period of time. Chronic diseases are very hard to cure. They don’t go away like other sicknesses do and vaccines and medication generally don’t work on them. Therefore, it takes a long time to get rid of allergies. But what exactly is an allergy? Allergies are reactions caused by the immune system as it responds to environmental substances. Most of these substances are harmless to people. The substances that trigger allergies are called allergens. Some common allergens include food, pollen, dust mites, animals, insect stings, or medicines. When the body is exposed to allergens it will start to react. The allergen stimulates immune system cells to release certain chemicals, such as histamine, which then lead to allergy symptoms. The most common symptoms of an allergy only cause mild discomfort, such as watery eyes, a runny nose, sneezing, and a rash or hives. More serious symptoms include, trouble breathing and swelling in your mouth or throat. Sometimes an allergic reaction can be life-threatening.

Shellfish are an allergy that can be fatal. A person allergic to shellfish can have anything from a minor rash to an anaphylactic reaction, where their throat closes up and they cannot breath.

How do we get allergies? People are mostly born with allergies, and they can be developed at any point during their life. Sometimes you have them from a young age but other times they don’t develop until adulthood. You can develop allergies to substances you’ve been around or consumed often with no warning. On the other hand, exposing young children to substances that may cause allergies, such as fur from pets, pollen, nuts and more, may prevent the child from ever developing allergies to those substances. For example, in Israel barely anyone has allergies to peanuts because one of the most common snacks for children contain peanuts. This snack is also given to babies because it’s very soft and easy to consume, therefore it strengthens their immune system from a young age. Allergies are also passed down through genes, from parents to their kids. But just because you, or your partner have them, doesn’t mean that all your kids will get them. And just because you or your partner don’t have them doesn’t mean your kids won’t have them. However, it is possible to get rid of them. Adults usually do not lose their allergies, but children may outgrow them.

Peanut allergies are becoming more common in the U.S.; but in Israel where children eat them regularly when even very young, the allergy is much more rare. Perhaps regular early exposure to peanuts reduces the risk for allergy?

You can also treat allergies. One of the most common treatments is antihistamine. Antihistamine is a drug that reduces or blocks the effects of histamine. Histamine is a chemical the body produces when it is exposed to an allergen, that causes all the allergy symptoms. Antihistamines work well for seasonal, indoor (dust, dust mites, dog and cat fur etc.), and food allergies. They don’t block all symptoms though. For more severe cases, your doctor can prescribe certain medications, depending on your allergy and symptoms. Medication can help reduce your immune systems reaction to the allergen and ease symptoms sometimes blocking them completely. Another treatment is immunotherapy, also known as desensitization or hypo-sensitization. This is a medical treatment for allergies that involves exposing people to larger and larger amounts of allergen, in the form of allergy shots or oral tablets or drops, in an attempt to strengthen the immune system. They may not cure the allergy completely, but they can significantly reduce your sensitivity to the allergen and reduce your allergic response. You must always talk to an allergist about immunotherapy before starting treatment.

Some plants, like poison ivy (pictured), poison oak, and poison sumac, cause allergic reactions in nearly everyone who touches them. It sometimes takes many years to start, but once it does, you’ll never be able to touch them without a reaction again.

Do you think you have an allergy? Don’t panic. About twenty percent of adults think they have allergies wile only ten percent actually have them. And even if you have allergies, don’t let it stop you. Go outside and explore the world and feel free to sneeze.

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