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Anatomy of an Allergy Attack

Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 11:00 PM

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Itchy eyes, runny noses, uncontrollable sneezes, wheezing lungs - those are a few of the symptoms an estimated 35-million Americans contend with because of seasonal allergies. Millions of others are allergic to such things as pet dander, mold, medicine, even peanuts. Over the next several days on radio, TV and web ideastream® will be reporting on allergies as part of our ongoing series of health information specials 90.3's Gretchen Cuda starts off by explaining that the causes of an allergic reaction are many but what's going on in the body is essentially the same.

CUDA: It’s summer …. The flowers are blooming, the leaves are budding on the trees and

SOT:// person sneezing

CUDA:  … there is pollen everywhere

SOT://person blowing nose

Everything itches, I have a headache, my nose never stops running it’s like a leaky faucet.  I sometimes want to rip my eyeballs out because my allergies are so bad.

CUDA: Every spring millions of Americans suffer itchy, watery eyes, runny noses, headaches and congestion, all because little granules of pollen floating through the air are mistaken by the body as harmful foreign invaders.

SILVER: It’s believed that the system was designed to protect us from parasites.

CUDA: Eli Silver is an allergy specialist at University Hospitals.  He says that an allergic response is sort of a false alarm. Like an army launching an attack against a harmless enemy.  Somehow the immune system has gotten confused - and treats things like pollen, dust, mold or the proteins on the hair of your beloved pet as if they were a dangerous parasite or virus. What happens next depends on where the allergen enters the body.

SILVER:  If it’s an allergy cell triggered in the nose by pollen, the patient would have a runny nose and sneezing.  If enters the eyes the eyes might get itchy and watery, if it enters the lungs they might have an asthma attack, and on the skin produce hives.

CUDA: Specialized allergy cells present in the eyes nose and skin release chemicals that are responsible for producing the symptoms that make you miserable.  These cells are a normal part of the body’s defense system and everyone has them, but in allergic people - Silver says they the cells get a little too excited.  The first time an allergic person encounters an allergen - like ragweed - the body produces a large number of ragweed “detectors.” The “detectors” sit on the surface of the allergy cells and wait.  The next time they encounter ragweed, they sound the red alert, and trigger the allergy cell to release the dreaded chemicals - things like histamine - and it’s the histamine that causes your runny nose, watery eyes, or hives.

SILVER: It dilates the blood vessels, it activates the nerves nearby which causes the sneezing and also sends more signals of red alert throughout the body.

CUDA: The whole thing he says is designed to trap the invader and expel it from the body - flush it out with tears, or coat it with sticky mucus and sneeze it out …. In the case of something dangerous this reaction would be a good thing.

SILVER: It is supposed to be beneficial.  If there is a virus flying through your nose and it’s full of gunk then it will not be able to make it any further.  With the dilation of blood vessels expanding, more blood can pass through and more immune cells can be recruited for an additional response. 

CUDA: Supposed to be beneficial is the operative phrase here- if the ragweed were actually dangerous - the allergic response would protect the body.  But when the system is activated by innocuous things in our everyday life, it’s not beneficial at all. Of course, not everyone’s immune system gets so confused.  The immune systems of non-allergic people detect ragweed and pet hair too- they just don’t sound the alarm.
The number of people with allergies in the United States and Europe has risen over the last several decades. One of the prevailing theories on the cause is that modern western societies are too clean.

SILVER: Because we live in such a clean environment with few infections, our immune system does not get properly adjusted and begins to chase after targets that are not dangerous to us.

CUDA:  The University Hospitals specialist says that early in life, our immune systems may be learning friends from foes - and in the absence of foes, it hones in on the wrong targets. 

Most treatments for allergies here in the US focus on the symptoms - There are three basic approaches - antihistamines like Benadryl, Zyrtec, Allegra and Claritin,.  They block the action of the trouble-causing histamine released from the allergy cells. Then there are drugs like corticosteroids - these aren’t the kind that some athletes take to “bulk up” - these steroids applied directly to the nose actually reduce the number of histamine-producing allergy cells. And finally, Allergy shots - a way of gradually exposing the patient to the thing they are allergic to over long periods of time.  That seems to properly reeducate a misinformed immune system.

SILVER: Out of all the medicines we have, allergy shots are the only thing that can cure it.

CUDA:  Ultimately, allergist Eli Silver says about 85 percent of patients who take allergy shots report reduced symptoms and are able to go off their medications.  It can be quite expensive and time-consuming and that’s why many allergy sufferers stick with over-the-counter remedies and muddle through.

Sound:  a couple of good sneezes

Gretchen Cuda, 90.3

Tags

Health, Attacking Allergies

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