It’s likely that you’ve heard of allergies before. Globally, environmental allergies alone affect 40% of people (totalling 3 billion people) and drug allergies affect 10% of people (totalling 780 million individuals). On top of that, what’s even more disturbing is that between 40 and 50% of school children are allergic to at least one substance.  But what exactly are allergies and why do we get them?

Allergies, known as Type I Hypersensitivity, occur when our immune system malfunctions, becoming hypersensitized and reacting to typically non-immunogenic substances. These substances, called allergens, cause our bodies to react.

The term “allergies” was first coined in 1906 by Viennese pediatrician, Clemens von Pirquet, who believed his patients were reacting to outside allergens like dust, pollen, or certain foods. The truth of the matter is, everybody has allergies because the body is always going to view foreign substances like pollen, grass, weeds etc as invaders.

So, what differentiates somebody that suffers from “allergies” with somebody that doesn’t, if we are all exposed to the same substances.

This all comes down to the degree to which the body reacts or in the case of sufferers, overreacts to the allergen. Let’s take hay fever as an example. Those that deal with hayfever may keep a good eye on the pollen count so that they know what they may be in for, but those that don’t suffer wouldn’t even care. If you have a normal immune system that doesn’t overreact to these outside allergens then you won’t deal with the common hayfever symptoms such as itching, watery eyes or sneezing. However, if your immune system is overactive then you will deal with these symptoms. Coming from somebody that is prone to hayfever,  high pollen counts can wreak havoc.

Allergy symptoms vary depending on the affected area, but swelling in parts of the body is common.

The responses can be either local or systemic. When the response is local, it can cause nasal swelling, eye redness and itching or skin rashes and hives.

However, if the response is systemic it can become more serious and lead to cutaenous reactions, bronchoconstriction, edema, hypotension, coma, and even death.

Though hay fever is a common example of airborne pollen allergies, allergies can also be triggered by medications.

Our immune system is meant to protect our bodies from foreign invaders, but sometimes it makes mistakes and becomes hypersensitive, leading to allergic reactions. There are several theories on how the immune system becomes hypersensitized, but one suggests that faulty genetics cause white blood cells to be unable to distinguish threatening and non-threatening proteins. This results in the immune system overreacting to substances like shellfish protein, which can lead to sensitizing exposure and the development of allergies.

Please note that the information given here is for educational purposes only and not in place of medical advice. Please see your medical practitioner should something be of concern to you.

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