It’s finally spring – rain is falling, flowers are blooming, and trees are budding. At least, that’s what’s on the mind of someone without seasonal allergies.
On the other hand, those with allergies know that the buds and blossoms actually signal the forthcoming itching, sneezing, coughing, runny noses and puffiness — an annual event throwing some into a sniffly despair, while others remain blissfully unaware.
It’s full-blown allergy season now, so let’s break down the science behind it.
What are allergies?
Allergies are one of the most common diseases – one in five people have them – and they occur when the body overreacts to a substance. People are allergic to all kinds of stuff, like pet hair, pollen, dust, insect stings, certain foods like shellfish and nuts, and even drugs, such as penicillin.
Those substances, called allergens, cause your body’s immune system to try to expel the particles from your body through an allergic reaction. Those coughing and sneezing fits we all know and love are your body’s way of trying to get rid of or neutralize something that it thinks is damaging.
What makes an allergen an allergen is not the substance itself, but the presence of an allergy to that substance. Allergens are usually harmless – pollen rubbed under the nose of someone who is not allergic to pollen does nothing.
Pollen only becomes an allergen when your body’s immune system misidentifies the substance as an invader. Lymphocytes, or white blood cells, are the ones that do the identifying. It is their mistake that makes you suffer.
The misidentification happens when a B-cell, one of two types of lymphocyte, finds an allergen in the body and begins to produce the appropriate antibodies to fight it. That way the second time that allergen is contacted, the body has a store of antibodies ready to deploy against it.
Antibodies, called immunoglobulins, come in five different subsets. But only immunoglobulin-E, or IgE, is involved in allergic reactions.
During an allergic reaction, IgE antibodies that are attached to mast cells and basophils – cells containing allergy mediating chemicals like histamine – find and attach themselves to an allergen. That attachment creates a cascading effect that ultimately destroys the cell, leading to their release of histamine, ultimately causing itching and swelling.
A severe allergic reaction, which involves the whole body and results in the dilation of your blood vessels, is called anaphylaxis. This is dangerous because when your blood vessel dilate there is a corresponding drop in blood pressure and sometimes difficulty breathing, which in serious cases can be deadly.
But why does spring suck so much?
Fair question. Spring allergies, sometimes called hay fever, are most commonly caused by pollen, coming from flowers, trees or even grass when they bloom in the springtime. And yes, there are some poor souls out there that are allergic to grass.
The wind whips up the pollen grains and carries them on the breeze, transporting all those pesky allergens near and far. Pollen counts are conducted to tell you how much pollen is in the air on any given day. In the springtime, those with flower pollen or tree pollen allergies will have it the worst.
After the spring allergy season dies down in mid summer, the ragweed plants start to produce their allergens, continuing the allergy season into the fall. Those with grass allergies and ragweed allergies tend to find the mid to late summer season the worst.
What can we do?
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a cure for allergies. Medications exist to help quell your symptoms, and epinephrine can help stop an allergic reaction, but nothing can take away your body’s response to allergens it sees as harmful.
Allergy shots, an injection of a concentration of allergens specific to you, can increase your tolerance to those allergens and lessen your symptoms. They are administered once every three to five years, and some say even after stopping the shot treatment their symptoms never return. Some must keep taking the shots to suppress their reactions.
But if you have allergies, you know that you would do almost anything to fix them. For some, that really means anything – including ingesting hookworms, a small parasite that can suppress the immune system, and by doing so, your allergy symptoms.
The worms live in your stomach and latch onto your small intestine where they suck out a drop of blood a day. With their saliva, they shut down their host’s immune system in order to protect themselves, but doing so can also prevent the body from having immune system reactions to allergens.
The worms don’t live inside you forever. You can kill them whenever you want by taking certain medications. According to NPR, one man who tried it out said that his hay fever went away completely, but only for a time.
Yes, cruel fate has bestowed upon us the burden or itching and sneezing. Why not someone else, you may wonder. That question is a little harder to answer.
Scientists have been studying allergies for a long time, but are still discovering why exactly some people’s immune systems treat harmless pollen and ragweed as a dangerous invader. Some people even develop allergies later in life, after years of exposure to similar materials to the allergen that finally broke the camel’s back.
Genetics are probably part of it. Families often contain members with similar allergies. Others say they’re caused by living in such a clean, sterile environment. That lack of exposure to everyday dust and dirt can lead to the development of allergies.
So the bottom line is until we have definitive solutions, for now you’re just unlucky.