Allergies are one of the most extreme manifestations of the human immune system. According to The American Heritage Science Dictionary, an allergy is, “an abnormally high immunologic sensitivity to certain stimuli such as drugs, foods, environmental irritants, microorganisms, or physical conditions, such as temperature extremes”. An allergic reaction is the human body’s response to unknown objects that it considers “invaders”. Also called antigens or allergens, these foreign objects activate the immune system when coming into contact with the body. Though the immune system usually protects the body from detrimental substances such as toxins and bacteria, an allergy is an overreaction to something innocuous.
Unfortunately for the enormous number of people affected by them, there is no effective way to completely avoid allergies. Nearly anything can be an allergen: household dust, plants, medications, plants, foods, animal dander, insect venoms, viruses, or bacteria. Reactions to these allergens differ from case to case, but they usually appear in the form of a small skin rash and/or itchy eyes or, in more severe cases, an entire body skin rash. One type of an extremely dangerous and potentially deadly reaction is known as anaphylaxis, which is a “severe, whole body allergic reaction”, according to the MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. This class of reaction is highly dangerous because it involves the release of histamines from tissues all over the body, causing the airways to tighten--sometimes enough to suffocate the allergic person. Consequently, it is important to be wary of allergens and medications that may cause negative reactions.
In the case that one accidentally ingests or comes into contact with an allergen, there is treatment for the reactions. In less severe cases, there are several oral antihistamines that attenuate the allergen’s effect on one’s body. One commonly used antihistamine is diphehydramine, sold under brand name Benadryl. Benadryl reduces the effects of histamines by inserting antihistamines into H1 receptor sites where the histamines are normally located. It increases contraction of vascular smooth muscles, reducing edema (swelling), redness, and hyperthermia which usually occur during an allergic reaction. By blocking the H1 sites, diphehdyramine decreases the sensitization of these sites, directly reducing itching. In more severe cases, more drastic treatment, such as epinephrine, is taken. Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, increases heart rate, dilates air passages, and contracts blood vessels, countering the effects of an allergic reaction. Thus, one can see why epinephrine can be incredibly helpful in the treatment of a severe allergy as it completely reverses the effects and restores the body to its natural equilibrium.
While drugs can be effective, the best way to treat allergies is to prevent them from developing. Several researcers have hypothesized that the recent increase of allergy related problems is directly related to society’s obsession with cleanliness. They argue that due to overcautious parents and “germ-phobic” individuals, children are not being exposed to enough allergens when the immune system is maturing, which cripples their ability to respond to allergic reactions in the future. A simple analogy is that of a young child learning how to solve puzzles as a four year old. By age eight, if he sees a more complex puzzle, his previous experience with the “junior” puzzle will aid him in his approach of this new puzzle. The human’s immune system is much like the brain of this child. Therefore, supporters of the hypothesis claim that the body must be introduced to allergens at an early age so that it can prepare for future exposures. In an article, Garry Hamilton discusses the advantages of exposing babies to a certain level of dirt, stating that this rebalances the immune system by reducing the chance that T-helper cells will overreact to allergens. If the individual is not exposed to some dirt at an early age, then allergens can later have much deadlier effects than those that would have been experienced in earlier years.
Allergies are truly a strange phenomenon of the human body. The idea that one’s body is able to overreact and thus shut itself down is frightening, but with effective drugs and new notions on how to combat the development of allergies, we no longer have to live in fear of our bodies self-destructing.
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"Anaphylaxis: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia." National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. Web. 23 June 2010. .