Recent statistics show that as much as twenty percent of the United States population - one in every five people - suffers from some kind of allergy. That's tens of millions each year dealing with a broad spectrum of allergies, including everything from common pollen and animal fur to various kinds of foods and even some smells.
Though seldom pleasant, allergic reactions are the body's ways of defending against attacks it perceives as harmful. Controlling allergy symptoms is largely a process of short-circuiting the body's natural reactions to allergens in the environment.
How allergy attacks work
Allergies are a disorder of the immune system, considered a form of Type I Hypersensitivity in the body. Following the ingestion or the inhalation of an allergen, the body produces an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (or IgE) that activate certain kinds of white blood cells - the body's most common form of immune system defense. These white blood cells, called mast cells and basophils, release the chemicals histamine and heparin as the allergen particles bind with the IgE.
Histamine is the cause of most perceived allergy symptoms, including sneezing and runny eyes. Blocking or reducing its presence in the body with anti-histamine medication is probably the most prevalent form of allergy treatment.
Three levels of allergies.
Allergies are typically classified according to three levels of severity. Mild reactions are generally limited to one area of the body. Moderate reactions are more acute, spreading to other parts of the body as the allergy attack progresses.
Severe allergic reactions occur when the body produces so much histamine and other allergy mediators in so short a time that the patient undergoes a dramatic drop in blood pressure. This condition, known as anaphylactic shock, can cause death in minutes if not treated. Researchers believe that sixteen percent of United States residents are in dangerous of anaphylactic shock, though such incidents result in less than 1,000 deaths each year.
Anaphylactic shock typically presents itself as a moderate allergy attack but then quickly develops into more painful symptoms such as difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, and dizziness. Mental confusion and lightheadedness are also possible as the brain struggles to deal with the drop in blood pressure.
Allergic responses typically happen where the body encounters them - pollen produces sneezing, and so forth. Allergies also sometimes produce an atopic reaction, meaning the appear in areas besides where the body encountered the allergen (for example, breathing pollen making someone break out in hives. ) Atopic reactions are strongly hereditary and may come from an overproduction of IgE within the bloodstream.
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