Spring finally rolls around. The snow's gone and you're psyched to be outside. And then it starts: the sneezing, the stuffy nose, and the itchy eyes. It's hay fever season! From February or March through October, tiny pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds travel through the air and eventually make their way into our noses and mouths. While these microscopic invaders are necessary for plants to reproduce, they cause trouble for 36,000,000 Americans. Of all the things that can cause allergies, pollen is one of the most common.
But what exactly is an allergy? Well, an allergy is an abnormal reaction by your body's immune system to a substance, known as an allergen, which is usually harmless. In addition to pollen, other common allergens include dust mites, insect venom, latex, mold and mildew, and foods, such as milk, wheat, soy, eggs, nuts, and shellfish.
How can you tell if you're having an allergic reaction? There are different types of allergic reactions, ranging from mildly irritating to life threatening. Most allergens cause sneezing, runny noses, and itchy ears and eyes, while some cause skin rashes and breathing problems. The most severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis, which causes a dramatic swelling of the airway, wheezing, a loss of blood pressure and heart rate, and blackout. So if you or someone you know is having a severe allergic reaction, be sure to get emergency medical care right away!
Here's how an allergic reaction happens: If you are allergic to a certain type of pollen, for example, your body creates histamines to fight back. The pollen is like a foreign body in your system. To counteract this foreigner, an army of histamine cells surrounds each pollen grain and tries to escort it out of the body. The pathways out of the body are through the blood, skin, or mucus. Because there are so many more histamine cells than pollen grains as they leave the body, you notice symptoms like swelling, a rash or a runny nose. Your doctor may give you an "antihistamine" to combat your symptoms. That's a medication that interrupts the body's production of histamine.
So if you're one of the millions of Americans who have allergies, before you get to the bottom of your next box of tissues, you might want to go see an allergist. An allergist can do a skin test to identify your specific allergies, recommend a way to avoid the allergens, and give you medications to relieve your symptoms. You may not be able to cure your allergies, but you can learn to live with them.