What are allergies and allergens?
Why do you have red and itchy eyes in spring? Why is it that when you eat nuts or honey your tongue swells? And why does being around a furry companion make you develop a rash or cause you difficulty in breathing when your friends seem to be completely fine doing all of these things?
The answer is – allergies. What does it mean to be allergic to something ? And why do different people have different allergies?
Allergies incorporate a wide range of conditions and symptoms, but they aren’t considered a disease in itself.
The body’s immune system is responsible for protecting us from harmful substances. When it recognizes the presence of a specific substance that can cause potential harm it responds by:
- destroying it (i.e pathogens)
- Creates a level of discomfort to alert us to stay away and safe ( i.e irritation or inflammation)
When a person has allergies, their immune system reacts to what are typically non threatening substances as though they are harmful. Their immune system becomes hypersensitive to a substance in the environment, food or medications that is not typically harmful to the body.
In medical terms- substances that are not harmful to the body but trigger allergic reactions are called “allergens”.
How do allergies manifest and how does one become allergic to something?
Allergies manifest over time. Although it may feel like they came overnight that is not the case.
The first time the body is exposed to an allergen, it doesn’t not usually result in a reaction. It usually takes time for the body to build up a sensitivity to the substance.
The immune system learns to recognize and remember the allergen. As it does so, it starts making antibodies to attack the antigen when exposure occurs. This buildup is called sensitization.
Different people are sensitive to different allergens, and different allergens trigger different kinds of symptoms and reactions in different people.
National Health Services has reported the following allergens as the most common in the world:
- grass and tree pollen – also known as as hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
- dust mites
- Pet dander
- Food ( nuts, fruit, shellfish, eggs and lactose products)
- Medicine (ibuprofen, penicillin, aspirin and certain antibiotics)
- Household chemicals ( chemicals in detergents, hair dyes etc)
Everyone is exposed to all kinds of allergens in our day to day lives. But luckily, most of us encounter these substances without experiencing any symptoms at all. However, those of us who have an excessive immune response to allergens, can experience a cascade of unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms are mild most of the time but they can be severe, and sometimes, though rarely, fatal.
Among the most common allergic symptoms are:
- Eye irritation
- Throat irritation
- Skin irritation( most commonly rashes)
- Nasal congestion
- Coughing etc.
According to the American College of Asthma and Immunology, over 50 million people in the US experience an allergic reaction each year.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a long-term disease which causes chronic inflammation of the airways in the lungs.
Asthma attacks happen when the lungs are challenged by an “asthma trigger”.
An asthma trigger is defined as any substance present in the air that causes an asthma attack. Asthma triggers are different for different people.
According to the CDC, the most common asthma triggers include:
- Tobacco Smoke (second hand smoke)
- Dust Mites (house dust)
- Excess humidity in the air or air that is too cold or dry air
- Outdoor Air Pollution (car exhaust, factory smoke or fire smoke)
- Pests ( waste from mice, cockroaches)
- Pet Dander
- Toxic Chemicals and VOCs in cleaning or selfcare products
When an asmthatic is exposed to an asthma trigger, their airways swell and the muscles around the airways tighten, making it difficult for the air to enter or exit the lungs. This results in coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath.
In the US, 1 in 13 people have asthma, making it one of the most common long term diseases among Americans. 25 million people suffer from asthma, which is a total of 7.7% of the adult population, and 8.8% of children.
What is the link between asthma and allergies?
Even though it is possible for a person to have allergies but not asthma, or asthma without allergies, these two conditions often occur together.
For most people, the link between these conditions lies in the responses of their lungs and immune system to otherwise harmless substances in the air such as grass, ragweed and pet dander.
Airborne allergies manifest and result in symptoms in the upper upper airway. Typically, allergies affect the nose, sinuses and larynx. Asthma on the other hand, is a condition that describes inflamed lower airways, the trachea and lungs.
If you are having irritation of your upper airway from allergies, the lower airway is likely to experience irritation as well. This is how allergies can lead to aggravation of asthma symptoms.
According to recent studies, asthma is recognized as a “syndrome,” – a complex condition with variability in its pathophysiology, severity, natural history, comorbidities, and treatment response. While there are many factors that can make an individual more prone to this condition, the connection between allergies and asthma is profound.
While many people develop asthma during childhood, adults who have allergies as a child are more likely to develop asthma later on in life.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, out of the 25 million Americans who suffer from asthma, over 60% of those people have allergies as well.
Living with Asthma and Allergies
It is possible to live well with allergies, and even asthma if you manage them properly. By finding the right approach and treatment plan, you can reduce symptoms of allergies and asthma attacks to a minimum.
It is also important to keep in mind that both asthma and allergy symptoms can change over time, and you may need to adjust your treatment accordingly.
Here are some guideline that can help you you stay on top of your condition:
- Develop an appropriate treatment plan, and stick to it!
Get help from a doctor who specializes in allergy or asthma treatment. They can help you find and understand what your triggers are, and find the right medications to keep your symptoms under control.
- Make sure you exercise regularly
Exercise can be a trigger for asthma attacks when the asthma is not well controlled. That doesn’t mean people with asthma should avoid exercising. Exercise is recommended to keep your lungs in good shape. As long as you keep your asthma under control, regular exercise should be practiced to help combat these conditions.
- Invest in a high quality air cleaner
Poor air quality is one of the main challenges a person with allergies or an asthmatic will encounter.Even though air quality affects all of us, suffering from allergies or asthma attacks makes the importance of managing indoor air quality even greater.
By investing in a high quality air cleaner, you can be sure you are eliminating triggers as well as other pollutants in your home. Air Cleaners with HEPA technology, remove 99.7% of particles 0.3 microns from the air.
- Change your mattress and pillows after 2 years maximum or use dust mite covers over all your bedding
Your bedroom is a place you spend a lot of time. Your mattress and pillow, believe it or not, are dust mites’ favourite place to live. If you suffer from dust allergies, or asthma regularly changing or covering bedding can make a very big difference.
- Quit smoking
Smoking is extremely harmful for your airways. If you have allergies, asthma or any other condition that affects your respiratory system, the harmful effects of smoking are almost doubled for you.
- Avoid places where exposure to secondhand smoke is inevitable.