Allergies come in many forms. Some get runny noses, some get a rash and others develop life threatening breathing problems. While these are clearly distinctly difference responses, they all have one important thing in common, and that is the immune system.
An allergy is essentially an over-response of the immune system, which is designed to primarily protect us from the environment around us, and is the reason we don’t get sick every time we come in contact with a virus, bacteria, fungus or parasite. The vast majority of the time, our immune system fends these things off without us even being aware of it. Occasionally, however, it mounts a response to things that are not inherently harmful. These things can include some of the more common allergens such as dust mites, foods, molds, pet dander, pollen, medications and insect stings. While these are the most common, the list of things people are known to potentially be allergic to is significantly larger. For example, while rare, some people are actually allergic to their own sweat – or at least that’s believed to be the case in patients with exercise induced anaphylaxis.
First, though, it is important to understand the immune system. It largely consists of the spleen, the thymus, a larger collection of lymph nodes and bone marrow. These are all connected by lymphatic vessels that usually run right alongside the veins in the body. Together, these organs create, develop, and sequester the different cells that make up the immune system. These cells are “taught” the difference between the markers that are on cells that are human and cells that are not human.
It is not entirely clear what causes these cells to respond to a specific allergen in one person and not in another, or why there has been a significant increase in allergies, but the theory which is currently popular within the medical field is referred to as the “cleanliness theory.” As the name indicates, the premise is that the increase in allergies is due to how clean we keep everything today. To simplify the theory a little, it is explained that, because the immune system is always looking for something to defend against and we have prevented our own exposure to things it would normally attack through the use of antiseptics and antibacterial products, that, instead, it is now attacking things that it would typically consider benign.
Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, it is largely accepted that the environment around us is always changing, and so is your immune system. Some people may ‘outgrow’ certain allergies and other allergies may develop as we age. So just because you weren’t allergic to ragweed last year doesn’t mean you won’t be this year. Your threshold for an allergic response may vary as well, meaning that the amount of pollen that was needed in the air to flair up your allergies least year may not be consistent from year to year.
Because of these variabilities, allergy treatment often feels like a moving target for those suffer from them. One of the best things to start with is to make sure you have proper sleep habits, a good diet, regular exercise, and proper stress outlets. Beyond that, many of us reach for a multitude of over-the counter medications, and may even see a doctor if that does not improve our symptoms. Of course, for those with life threatening reactions emergency medication is needed. Most patients that have potentially life threatening reactions are advised to carry injectable epinephrine at all times.
Those that are still suffering despite typical medications may consider allergy shots. While these do require frequent visits to the doctor’s office over several years, they can be beneficial in the long run. Allergy shots work by injecting what is supposed to be a small amount of an allergen, well below the threshold to result in an allergic reaction. As your body gets used to these small amounts of the allergen, it can tolerate increasingly larger amounts at one time, thereby increasing your tolerance of the allergen.
Additionally, those who don’t have life threatening reactions can consider non-pharmaceutical treatments. While most of these have little, if any, research to back up their claim that they reduce allergy symptoms; most of them are safe and have been used for centuries in one culture or another.
Such treatments include herbal supplements such as butterbur and stinging nettles, as well as other products like local honey. Since small amounts of pollen can be found in honey, it is believed that by consuming it regularly in small doses (unheated), it will help increase the allergen threshold just as allergy shots do.
Obviously there are multiple approaches in the treatment of allergies (including OMM!), but, despite all our efforts, there is no guarantee that anything will necessarily work. It is important to remember however, that if you develop difficulty breathing or throat swelling please seek medical attention immediately. Otherwise it is important to realize that the symptoms are unlikely to kill you or do severe harm. So pick a route that best matches with your approach to your own health and hope for a low pollen count this year.