It has been my lot to demytholize some concepts that many people have. Until few years ago people would give me a quizzical look when I told them that I was a daughter of an allergy specialist. It was hard for them to digest that “allergies” could be taken seriously, let alone be treated. Even to physicians treating allergies was the pursuit of the dilettante. Observing the strain on productivity that living with an allergic condition can cause and the variety of invalid methods used to handle them often fuels a lengthy narrative from me. So let me explain some issues in order to make ‘allergies’ more understandable.
Allergy is a condition when a substance that is not harmful in itself can bulldoze the body’s defense mechanism into a tussle that produces discomfort in some select individuals only.
So how does this happen?
Well, our genes take the credit for resulting in some of us having a tendency to react adversely, and this predisposition is termed ‘atopy’. Any substance (this is usually a protein) that can fuel an irritated response from the immune system (which we generally refer to by the term inflammation)can be called an ‘allergen’. The inflammatory response is orchestrated by cells in the immune system called ‘lymphocytes’ and the discomfort produced is mediated via counter proteins (remember allergens are proteins) called ;immunoglobulins’ that release several chemicals into the body. The common mediators are ‘histamine’ and ‘leucotrienes’ and they are responsible for the overt manifestations of the allergic reaction. This is also the reason why the reaction can be treated effectively with medications that counter these biochemicals (antihistamine and antileucotrienes, steroids, etc.), if used judiciously.
What are the ways in which an allergy can present itself?
The allergic reaction can manifest in different forms depending on which part of the body presents the allergen to the immune system; the commonest problems manifested are in the skin ( where it is called atopic dermatitis),the respiratory system( termed rhinitis if involving the nose and asthma if the damage proceeds to the lungs)and eyes (conjunctivitis). Ear and sinus infections can occur as a complication of allergic rhinitis. In rare cases there may be a gastrointestinal involvement , accompanied by erratic bowel movements or a migraine. Occasionally the hyper-responsiveness can rapidly affect many systems of the body and the itchiness starting with the skin can proceed to compromising breathing and lowering of blood pressure, endangering life itself .This type of reaction is scientifically termed ‘anaphylaxis’ .I’m sure all of you have seen or heard instances of an insect bite or seafood feast that led to an admission to the intensive care unit. It’s surprising how much immunological memory is built around things that are unnoticed at the time. Subsequent exposure to the same allergen brings about a quicker and stronger reaction, and therefore an atopic individual is definitely susceptible to a life threatening crisis at any time.