What Causes Allergies?

No one knows for sure why certain people are allergic to certain things while others are not. We do know that allergies tend to run in families. If you have allergies, likely, at least one of your parents does too. Another possibility is that exposure to allergens when the body’s immune system is weak, such as after an illness or during pregnancy, may also play a role in developing allergies. Although allergies are most common in children, they can occur at any age. Sometimes allergies will go away, but they also can come back years later. 

Allergens that can cause allergic reactions may vary from pollen (grass, tree, weed) to mold, food, medications, and even insect stings. 

What are Allergies?

The immune system is a complex network of specialized organs and cells that helps defend your body against foreign invaders. For example, when your body encounters outside elements like bacteria or viruses, your immune system produces protective antibodies and activated white blood cells to fight off these invaders.

An allergy (or allergic reaction) is when the immune system mistakes a harmless substance for a dangerous one and produces an antibody called “immunoglobulin E,” more commonly known as “IgE.” IgE is an antibody that protects us from particular parasitic infections. However, those living in developed countries do not usually encounter these parasites. IgE is typically absent (or present at very low levels) in people who do not suffer from allergies.

What Happens in an Allergy Attack?

When an allergic person is exposed to an allergen, IgE antibodies are produced to fight off the specific allergen. For example, if someone is allergic to cats and then spends time around a cat, an “anti-cat” IgE antibody is produced. If the same person is also allergic to pollen and comes in contact with pollen grains, then their body will also produce an “anti-pollen” IgE antibody, and so on. So each allergen will have a specific IgE antibody to fight off that particular trigger.

Each time IgE is produced, the IgE molecules will attach themselves to mast cells found in large numbers in the eyes, nose, lungs, intestines, and immediately beneath the skin. These mast cells contain many chemicals, including a substance called histamine, which can cause a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, itching, hives, and wheezing when released into the body. These effects are recognized as allergy symptoms.

In some cases, reactions can occur in several places throughout the body. For example, welts or hives may appear, spasms in the lungs may cause coughing or wheezing, the throat and tongue may swell – even anaphylaxis may occur.

Can Allergies be Controlled?

Avoidance is the best defense against allergies. But if you are unable to avoid the bothersome allergens, you may take medication to relieve symptoms. If your symptoms cannot be controlled by medication, then an allergist may prescribe allergy shots. Allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, can put your allergies into remission over time and are an excellent alternative for people who don’t want to take medicine regularly. Immunotherapy treats the source of environmental allergies, by desensitizing your body to your specific allergies.

Don’t suffer from untreated allergies. Schedule an appointment today with one of our board-certified allergists, and move towards a clearer tomorrow.