Science

What Causes Allergies? How to limit reactions?

It is estimated that between 25 and 30% of the population is allergic to something and this proportion continues to increase. Air pollution, plus (also?) Rigorous hygiene, increased use of drugs, new diets or even changes in our internal environment could explain this increase. What exactly are the mechanisms associated with an allergy?

Very briefly, an allergy can be seen as an exaggerated immune reaction to a substance that, in theory, should be tolerated by the body, called an allergen. We now know that most allergies are caused by antibodies, class E immunoglobulins (IgE). Allergies particularly affect children and young adults, but they can actually occur at any age, especially in people with a genetic predisposition. Some studies also suggest that children born by cesarean section are at increased risk of allergic disease (because they have not been exposed to the maternal microbiome).

Allergies can be caused by food, medicine, animal hair, pollen, hymenopteran venom, contact with metals, etc. An allergy can manifest itself in various ways: contact with the allergen can trigger a skin reaction (dermatitis, urticaria), respiratory (allergic rhinitis, asthma) or, in the most severe cases, anaphylaxis, the outcome of which can be fatal.

Reactions caused by chemical mediators.

Our immune system is able to recognize a harmful foreign body (bacteria, viruses and parasites) as soon as it enters the body; then it produces cells capable of eliminating this intruder. But in the case of an allergy, the immune system becomes dysregulated: it no longer tolerates certain substances that are nevertheless harmless. These substances, called allergens, which are almost always proteins, stimulate the immune system, which begins to produce a specific series of antibodies; these in turn trigger the massive release of chemical mediators (histamine, tryptase, leukotrienes, prostaglandins, etc.).

For example, when mast cells come into contact with an allergen and present its specific IgE on their surface, they release histamine, which will cause more or less serious reactions (vasodilation, itching, edema, watery eyes, runny nose, etc.), well known (and feared) by allergy sufferers.

In non-allergic people, the normal role of IgE is to fight parasites. These antibodies thus circulate in a free state in the blood serum and are also associated with cells of the immune system of the skin, lungs and digestive tract (which explains the location of allergic symptoms).

The first time a person is exposed to an allergen, they generally do not experience a reaction, as it often takes time for the immune system to develop sensitivity to the substance. But as it learns to recognize the allergen, it begins to produce antibodies to attack it as soon as further exposure occurs.

Note that the type of allergen, as well as the mode of entry into the body, will determine the external physical manifestation of allergies. Therefore, exposure to skin allergens generally results in redness, itching, swelling, and a burning sensation on the skin, while pneumatic allergens, which enter the body through the airways and respiratory tract, can cause a runny nose, swelling and a burning sensation on the skin. skin, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

First good reflex: the elimination of the allergen

Among the most common allergens are:

  • foods: peanuts, cow’s milk, eggs, shellfish, nuts;
  • drugs: beta-lactams (penicillin), curares used in general anesthesia;
  • bee and wasp venom;
  • pollen from trees and grasses;
  • pet hair;

Some allergies are seasonal. For example, allergic rhinitis (also called hay fever), the most common manifestation of respiratory allergy, usually peaks between April and May, when the amount of pollens in the air is highest. This allergy can also be due to dust mites and cats; in these cases, the risk persists throughout the year.

There is no cure for allergies; Pharmacological treatments (antihistamines, corticosteroids) or desensitization strategies, which aim to make the patient tolerant to the responsible allergen, through the regular administration of small amounts of allergen for several months or years, however, allow to improve the conditions of life of allergy sufferers. However, eliminating the responsible allergens is still the best way to limit allergic reactions.

To reduce exposure to household allergens, here are some simple tips:

  • Limit (or even completely avoid) contact with dogs / cats (at a minimum, make sure they don’t enter your room).
  • Choose tile floors over carpets and rugs, and vacuum regularly to remove as many dust mites as possible.
  • Avoid indoor plants, which also promote the development of molds and mites.
  • Equip your home with a dehumidifier, because mold likes warm and humid environments.
  • Install a High Efficiency Air Filter (HEPA) to reduce allergens in the air.

The number of people with allergies has increased dramatically in the last two decades, especially among children. The Global Platform for Allergy and Airway Patients warns that allergy problems will increase even more as air pollution and ambient temperatures rise. In fact, these environmental changes, inherent in human activity, will affect pollen counts, the presence or absence of biting insects, and the presence or absence of molds associated with allergic diseases.

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