allergiesScience 

Hypersensitive immune systems and the commonality of allergies

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When Austrian scientist Clemens von Pirquet coined the term “allergy” in 1906, it is unsure whether or not he thought it would be used so prevalently in modern conversation. The renowned immunologist was the first to notice a hypersensitive reaction of a smallpox vaccine, one he called an ‘allergic reaction’. Of course, in modern time the word has grown to include a much larger scope of reactions and specific causes.

Allergy to pollen is very common

Today, the term allergy is used to denote a series of conditions caused by hypersensitivity of one’s immune system to an external factor that may not affect everyone. However it is important to note that food intolerances and food poisoning are separate conditions, and are not allergies per se. More often than not, allergic reactions may cause symptoms such as red eyes, a variety of rashes, runny nose, shortness of breath, or swelling of the affected area – sound familiar?

Most people have some sort of allergy, with the common ones being pollen and certain foods; these are usually benign and aren’t always sever. However, there is a range of other things that are known to be a lot more severe, such as metallic substances, insect stings and medication, which can cause severe harm and even death. Whilst this may sound like a fairly aleatory group of allergens, the underlying reasons for the causes of allergies are genetics as well as environmental factors.

Mast cells, natural production of IgE
Mast cells, natural production of IgE; Production of Antibodies

Whilst genetics are something fairly hard to change, environmental factors are based off of fairly simple basis of exposure. Early exposure to potential allergens may be protective, and reduces your risk of developing an allergy to that peculiar factor – on the flip side, exposure at a later age to a different factor could lead to an allergy because your immune system has never encountered it before, leading to an allergic reaction.

From a biological standpoint, your immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE), which are part of the body’s immune system, bind to any allergens they find, causing a chain reaction that releases histamines that cause the symptoms we are all familiar with. There are several treatments for allergies, including avoiding known allergens and the use of medications such as and antihistamines.

Other forms of treatment, like immunotherapy, gradually exposes people to larger and larger amounts of allergen in order to reduce the body’s reaction to it — essentially conditioning the immune system. That being said, allergies are still very common and not many people pursue such an intensive treatment. It is estimate that roughly 20% of people are affected by hay fever, 6% suffer from at least one food allergy, and about 20% have atopic dermatitis at some point in time.

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