Here’s a primer that tells you about allergies, what happens in the body and what symptoms are dangerous.
Allergens, anaphylaxis, histamine. You probably know that these terms all have something to do with allergies. In an allergic reaction, the body thinks the allergen is a dangerous threat and mounts an immune response. This response takes the form of symptoms of an allergic reaction.
The antagonistic allergen
An allergen is a substance that your body mistakenly thinks is dangerous. Common allergens are pollen, molds, dust mites, animal dander, latex and certain foods and medications.
When exposed to the allergen, the body produces antibodies. These are proteins made to fight the invader. The antibodies bind to a specialized cell, the mast cell. The next time the allergen appears, it binds to the antibody on the mast cell. Then the mast cell releases potent chemicals, one of which is histamine. Histamine leads to widening of blood vessels, narrowing of the bronchial tubes and symptoms of an allergic reaction. These include runny nose, watery eyes, itching and sneezing. Many allergy medications help with allergy symptoms because they block the action of histamine.
Allergies and asthma
Allergies and asthma are cut from the same cloth. Allergies can trigger an asthma attack. When exposed to an allergen, some people may feel chest tightness, have trouble breathing and start to wheeze.
Having good control over your allergies can limit both the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.
Are allergies dangerous?
Most allergies are not dangerous, but they can make life miserable. The exception is anaphylaxis. This is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is rare but life-threatening. With this, the body’s response to the allergen is sudden and systemic. That means the whole body is involved. Any allergen can potentially lead to an anaphylactic reaction. But certain foods, medications and insect stings are the most likely culprits.
- Mental confusion, dizziness (due to a drop in blood pressure)
- Swelling (especially of the face, tongue and throat)
- Difficulty breathing
The person’s condition can quickly become life-threatening if it’s not treated. Call 9-1-1 right away.
What can you do to treat anaphylaxis?
The best treatment is prevention. Know what you are allergic to and avoid those triggers.
If you are at increased risk of anaphylaxis, ask your doctor about an emergency kit that contains injectable epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). The epinephrine helps to constrict blood vessels. This raises blood pressure and cuts the risk of shock. While you still need to seek emergency care, the injected epinephrine “buys some time,” allowing about 15 minutes travel time to a hospital emergency room.
Also, if you are at risk for anaphylaxis, you should wear a medical alert bracelet to alert others to your condition.