An allergy refers to an exaggerated reaction by the immune system in response to exposure to certain foreign substances. The response is exaggerated because these foreign substances are normally seen by the body as harmless in nonallergic individuals and do not cause a response in them. In allergic individuals, the body recognizes the foreign substance, and the allergic part of the immune system generates a response.
Allergy-producing substances are called "allergens." Examples of allergens include pollens, dust mites, molds, animal proteins, foods, and medications. When an allergic individual comes in contact with an allergen, the immune system mounts a response through the IgE antibody.
Approximately 10%-30% of individuals in the industrialized world are affected by allergic conditions, and this number is increasing. Allergic rhinitis (nasal allergies) affects roughly 20% of Americans. Between prescription costs, physician visits, and missed days of work/school, the economic burden of allergic disease exceeds $3 billion annually.
Asthma affects roughly 8%-10% of Americans. The estimated health costs for asthma exceed approximately $20 billion annually. Food allergies affect roughly 3%-6% of children in the United States, and roughly 1%-2% of adults in the U.S. The prevalence of allergic conditions has increased significantly over the last two decades and continues to rise.
A common scenario can help explain what causes allergies. A few months after the new cat arrives in the house, dad begins to have itchy eyes and episodes of sneezing. One of the three children develops coughing and wheezing. The mom and the other two children experience no reaction whatsoever despite the presence of the cat. How can this occur?
The immune system is the body's organized defense mechanism against foreign invaders, particularly infections. Its job is to recognize and react to these foreign substances, which are called antigens. Antigens often lead to an immune response through the production of antibodies, which are protective proteins that are specifically targeted against particular antigens. These antibodies, or immunoglobulins (IgG, IgM, and IgA), are protective and help destroy a foreign particle by attaching to its surface, thereby making it easier for other immune cells to destroy it. The allergic person however, develops a specific type of antibody called immunoglobulin E, or IgE, in response to certain normally harmless foreign substances, such as cat dander. Other antigens, such as bacteria, do not lead to production of IgE, and therefore do not cause allergic reactions. IgE was discovered and named in 1967 by Kimishige and Teriko Ishizaka.
IgE is an antibody that all of us have in small amounts. Allergic individuals, however, generally produce IgE in larger quantities. Historically, this antibody is important in protecting us from parasites.Another part of the immune system, the T-cell, may be involved in allergic responses in the skin, as occurs from the oils of plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, or reactions to metal, such as nickel. The T-cell may recognize a certain allergen in a substance contacting the skin and cause an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response can cause itching, rash, and discomfort.
Another part of the immune system, the T-cell, may be involved in allergic responses in the skin, as occurs from the oils of plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, or reactions to metal, such as nickel. The T-cell may recognize a certain allergen in a substance contacting the skin and cause an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response can cause itching, rash, and discomfort.
Allergies can develop at any age, but most food allergies begin at a young age, and many are outgrown. Environmental allergies can develop at any time. The initial exposure or sensitization period may even begin before birth. Individuals can also outgrow allergies over time. It is not fully understood why one person develops allergies and another does not, but there are several risk factors for allergic conditions. Family history, or genetics, plays a large role, with a higher risk for allergies if parents or siblings have allergies. There are numerous other risk factors for developing allergic conditions. Children born via Cesarean section have a higher risk of allergy as compared to children who are delivered vaginally. Exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of allergy. Boys are more likely to be allergic than girls. Allergies are more common in westernized countries, and less common in those with a farming lifestyle. Exposures to antigens, use of antibiotics, and numerous other factors, some of which are not yet known, also contribute to the development of allergies. This complicated process continues to be an area of medical research.
The parts of the body that are prone to allergic symptoms include the eyes, nose, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract. Although the various allergic diseases may appear different, they all result from an exaggerated immune response to foreign substances in sensitive individuals. The following are brief descriptions of common allerAllergic rhinitis ("hay fever") is the most common of the allergic diseases and refers to nasal symptoms that are due to aeroallergens. Year-round or perennial allergic rhinitis is usually caused by indoor allergens, such as dust mites, animal dander, or molds. Seasonal allergic rhinitis is typically caused by tree, grass, or weed pollens. Many individuals have a combination of both seasonal and perennial allergies. Symptoms result from the inflammation of the tissues that line the inside of the nose after exposure to allergens. The eyes, ears, sinuses, and throat can also be involved. The most common symptoms include the following:
In 1819, an English physician, John Bostock, first described hay fever by detailing his own seasonal nasal symptoms, which he called "summer catarrh." The condition was called hay fever because it was thought to be caused by "new hay."