What Are Allergies
In simple terms, an allergy is an unusual sensitivity to substances that normally do not affect most people. The dust particles floating around the house that little Johnny breathes have no effect on him. However, after a few hours at home, his sister Jennifer has trouble breathing. She sneezes and develops “allergic shiners,” dark rings under her eyes.
You buy a cute puppy for Jennifer the following year, only to find her constantly rubbing her nose, an action called the “allergic salute”. This is due to airborne animal dander from the puppy. You now face a major diplomatic dilemma: convince Jennifer to switch to a goldfish!
Whatever the cause(s) of your allergy, the common signs and symptoms are sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, runny and itchy nose, nasal congestion (nasal means pertaining to the nose), postnasal drip (nasal mucus dripping into the back of your throat), and sometimes a cough. Not very pleasant!
A medical term you may have read or heard your healthcare professional use is rhinitis (pronounced rye-night-is). This term covers all the nasal symptoms mentioned, which are caused by inflammation of the tissue lining the nose. When you are allergic only to seasonal grasses, weeds, trees, or flowers, your condition is called seasonal allergic rhinitis.
WHAT CAUSES ALLERGIES?
A quick overview probably is useful here, so that you can understand why you will want to change your environment. The reason some people are allergic and others are not can be found in their immune system.
Immunity is the body’s ability to recognize and destroy anything perceived to be harmful. Such enemies are: viruses (eg, colds and chickenpox), bacteria (eg, strep throat, pneumonia), poisons (natural and man-made), and fungi. The normal body produces antibodies that attack and neutralize these enemies.
After these harmful enemies are either inhaled, or swallowed, or touched, the antibody defense system goes into action. In an allergic response specific antibodies latch onto cells in the respiratory tract, or stomach, or intestines, or the skin. These cells are called mast cells or basophils (a type of white blood cell).
The antibodies cause the mast cells to secrete histamine, which neutralizes the offenders. However an excess of histamine creates tissue changes that cause allergy symptoms, such as dilation of the blood vessels, inflammation, and discomfort, which, in turn, cause runny noses, watery eyes, and other annoying symptoms.
In persons with allergies, these antibodies spring into action against substances that normally are harmless: pollen, house dust, animal dander, or molds. So, the house dust Jennifer inhales triggers her immune system to develop antibodies that latch onto cells in her respiratory tract. And, suddenly, the dreaded allergy symptoms are triggered by the release of histamine.
CAN I BE ALLERGIC TO ANYTHING?
In theory, the answer is yes. But, in the majority of cases, most allergies are caused by pollen (from grasses, trees, flowers, and weeds), dust mites, animal dander, molds, insects, or house dust. Other irritants—such as paint fumes, tobacco smoke, hairsprays, perfumes, detergents, weather conditions, even your emotions or exercise—can bring on or trigger allergy-like symptoms.
It is important to understand the difference between these irritants (or triggers) and an allergen that causes a medically distinct allergy. An irritant—eg, an aerosol spray —can trigger an allergy-like reaction (runny nose, sneezing, etc.) without being an offending allergen—eg, a weed. The irritant causes the same allergy symptoms but in a different way. This condition is referred to as nonallergic rhinitis, the most common form of which is called vasomotor rhinitis or VMR.
The question remains: Why does it matter whether your symptoms are due to allergens or irritants? First of all, there may be different treatments for each condition; if you have vasomotor rhinitis (VMR) and not allergic rhinitis or seasonal allergic rhinitis, you may not need an oral medication, just a nasal spray. You actually may suffer from both nonallergic VMR and allergies at the same time. This condition is called mixed rhinitis, and it does not mean that you will feel twice as bad, but it may make a difference in how your physician decides to treat you.
When you appreciate these medical differences, you realize how important it is to know specifically which irritants/triggers and/or allergens are causing problems. You then can plan to avoid them through removing the irritant and/or allergen, whether paint solvent, mold in the basement, or whatever.
Your physician can complete a comprehensive screening assessment of your susceptibility to irritants and allergens. This can ascertain which kind of rhinitis you have. The self assessment screen is available on the internet at www.AboutRhinitis.com which you can complete and take to your physician if you wish.
WHAT IS ASTHMA?
This question is not easy to answer. For our purposes, we will regard asthma as a complex of symptoms involving shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. The symptoms are caused by a narrowing of the airways to the lungs. Fortunately, the condition tends to be reversible.
Asthma may or may not be caused by allergens, but most medical authorities accept that often there is a link between asthma and airborne irritants and allergens.
At any rate, we can say with confidence that the preventative measures advocated can do no harm to an asthma sufferer, and there is every reason to believe, on scientific grounds, that the patient will benefit from a cleaner environment.
Do you think you have asthma? Take the quiz now!
WHAT IS HAY FEVER?
This term is misleading because there is no fever and the condition is not caused by hay. Essentially, hay fever is the lay term for allergic rhinitis. This condition is characterized by sneezing, with a runny nose, itchy, and possibly swollen, eyes, and sore mouth and throat. The cause usually is airborne pollens from trees, weeds, or grasses.