MD Insights: Dr. Yost on Allergies
For many, allergies are a frustrating reality of life. Why do we have them? How do they develop? Here’s and MD’s perspective.
First of all, what even are allergies? Allergies, in medical terms, are a hypersensitive or exaggerated immune response to certain substances, known as allergens. These allergens, which include a wide variety of substances, are typically harmless to most individuals.
When an allergic person comes into contact with an allergen, their immune system recognizes it as a foreign invader and initiates an immune response. The immune systems of people without allergies still recognize these substances, but usually ignore them. The scientific process behind what makes allergies, allergies, has a couple different steps:
First, your body needs to come in contact with a substance before developing an allergy. This initial exposure usually does not produce an allergic response. It is later exposures that do— sometimes the exposure directly after, and sometimes many exposures later. This is why you may hear someone say, “I have eaten shrimp for 20 years without a problem, and now I’m allergic!”
Upon exposure to an allergen, the allergic person’s immune system reacts by producing specific antibodies (called immunoglobulin E, or IgE).
Next, these IgE antibodies bind to specific cells (called mast cells and basophils). These specific cells are mostly found in the respiratory tract, the skin, and the gastrointestinal tract.
Finally, when the allergen interacts with the IgE antibodies bound to these cells, this interaction triggers the body’s inflammatory response, causing the release of chemicals like histamine. The release of these chemicals is what causes the characteristic symptoms of an allergic reaction, which can vary from itching and sneezing to rashes and hives.
Below, we dive deeper into what everyone would like to know: “Why do I have them?”
This very natural question has a much more complex answer. As with many things, we’ve gotten a firm grasp on the “what” but are still working on the “why.” What we do know is that the development of allergies is a complex process influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and immunological factors. While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, several theories and risk factors have been identified:
- Genetic Predisposition: Allergies tend to run in families, suggesting a genetic component. If one or both parents have allergies, their children are more likely to develop allergies as well.
- Environmental Exposure: Early exposure to certain allergens or environmental factors while the immune system is still developing may increase the risk of developing allergies.
- Immunological Imbalance: In individuals prone to allergies, their immune system overreacts to harmless substances, perceiving them as threats. The cause of these overreactions is still being studied.
- Hygiene Hypothesis: This hypothesis suggests that reduced exposure to certain microorganisms during early childhood, due to improved hygiene and sanitation practices, may contribute to an increased risk of developing allergies.
- Other factors like smoking during pregnancy, exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, diet, and even stress levels have been implicated in the development or exacerbation of allergies.
It’s important to note that the development of allergies is a multifaceted process, and different combinations of genetic and environmental factors may contribute to individual susceptibility. Not everyone exposed to allergens will develop allergies, and the specific triggers and patterns of allergic reactions can vary among individuals.
Further research is still needed to fully understand the complex mechanisms underlying the development of allergies, as well as to identify effective strategies for their prevention.
In the meantime, however, there are many different options available for their diagnosis and treatment. At our centers, we aim to offer comprehensive service to people living with allergies, from allergy diagnosis, to symptom management and epinephrine administration.
If you are in need of allergy services, get the care you need by finding a center near you here.
Dr. James Yost, Chief Medical Officer at CRH Healthcare
An Emory alum with 30 years of healthcare experience and 17 years as a practicing physician, Dr. Yost cares deeply about the patient experience, inside and outside our centers. Starting this year, Dr. Yost will be answering our patients’ most common questions through MD Insights, with practical and trustworthy advice.
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