One Good Sneeze Deserves Another: Why We Get Allergies

By Howard J. Bennett

Last month, I wrote about vaccines (shots). In case you need a quick refresher, vaccines stimulate your immune system to make antibodies against viruses or bacteria that can make you sick. These antibodies help your body attack the invading germs and wipe them out before they can cause any trouble.

It turns out that in addition to making antibodies to kill germs, the body’s immune system sometimes messes up and makes antibodies to substances that are not dangerous—such as plants. An example of this is hay fever, one of the most common disorders in the world. If you have hay fever that means you are allergic to any one of a number of wind-pollinated plants including trees, grass and ragweed.

During allergy season, invisible grains of pollen swirl through the air like Dementors in search of their next victims. Eventually, some of this pollen will make its way into your nose and sinuses. If you are allergic to whatever is in the air, your body’s misguided immune system will attack the pollen as though it were ghoulish germ trying to make you sick. In the process of attacking pollen, a chemical called histamine is released. Histamine causes watery, itchy eyes, sneezing, an itchy nose, and sometimes even itchy skin.

Most people with hay fever suffer in the spring when the trees are in bloom. Others have symptoms during summer (grass) or fall (ragweed). If you are allergic to dust, mold or house pets, you may have symptoms throughout the year.

People with dust allergies are really allergic to repulsive creatures known as dust mites. These microscopic bugs live in carpets, mattresses, stuffed animals, and other fabrics. When dust mites die, their dried up bodies mix with dirt and skin cells that fall off your body. These ingredients mix together to become house dust. (If you do a Google search for dust mites and hit images, you’ll wonder why mutant dust mites never made it into a horror movie.)

Most allergy medicines contain anti-histamines that are designed to block the histamine released during the allergic process. Allergy sufferers may also take nose sprays to reduce nasal inflammation.

Here are some other tips that may help.

• Keep your windows closed during allergy season.

• Cover your pillow and mattress with an allergy barrier.

• If you are allergic to pets, keep the cute little beasts out of your bedroom.

• Take a shower and change your clothes when you come in at night. This will not only get you clean (and make your parents happy) but it will also wash excess pollen off your body.


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 3/15/10.)

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