How and why you get allergies

Written by dr. boyan hadjiev
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Allergies are a response to an immune system that works "too well" and not any weakness

How and why you get allergies
(Getty Thinkstock)

The immune system harms rather than protects a person with allergies. It mistakenly interprets harmless material like pollen as a threat.

According to the national charity Allergy UK, an estimated 21 million people suffer from allergies across the country. But why do some people develop allergies, while others don’t? Scientists aren’t sure, but they suspect genetics plays a role. An antibody called IgE is largely responsible for the development of the allergic response in people susceptible to allergies.

How the immune system works

To simplify, an antibody is a small protein that your body produces in mass. It identifies foreign substances invading the body and marks them for destruction by immune cells. Without this immune response, invading microbes could damage tissue and leave a person sick or dead.

A healthy immune system can combat infections, fight cancers, and keep you healthy. Usually, the immune system ignores common substances such as pollen and cat dander. That’s because unlike disease-causing bacteria and viruses, these substances pose no threats to the body.

The allergic response

The immune system harms rather than protects a person with allergies. It mistakenly interprets harmless material like pollen as a threat. In response, the immune system overproduces Immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody that recognizes foreign substances. IgE then communicates with immune system cells called mast cells.

Mast cells attack allergens. During this battle, powerful chemicals like histamine are released. These chemicals cause swelling, itching, inflammation, and tightening of the airways. The response, called an allergic reaction, is extreme and unnecessary.

The intelligent IgE

IgE antibodies are designed to bind to a specific target. For example, if your body only overproduces IgE that recognises pollen, you won’t be allergic to dust mites.

However, many allergy sufferers have multiple allergies. This is because their bodies overproduce different types of IgE molecules, which recognise corresponding allergens such as pollen, mold, dust mite, and cat hair.

Too strong for your own good

It is a common misconception that allergies are caused by a “weak” immune system. However, quite the contrary is true. The immune system is actually overreacting, or doing its job too well. The chemicals it produces during an allergic response are what make you feel "sickly."

About the Author

Boyan Hadjiev, MD, has been a practicing physician for five years. He is double board certified in Internal Medicine, (2003), and Allergy and Immunology, (2005).

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