The Basics of Allergies Explained

May 09, 2018

The Basics of Allergies Explained

More than 50 million people suffer from allergies, making allergies the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, costing a massive $18 billion annually. Symptoms result from exposure to pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mold spores, and many other common allergens. While symptoms can range from mild irritation to extreme discomfort and difficulty breathing, all allergic symptoms are triggered by the same immune process.

The body’s immune system is the first line of defense against harmful foreign substances, often referred to as antigens. While some antigens are potentially life-threatening, like some viruses and bacteria, they can also be basic allergens like pollen, dust, and dander.

The body identifies any foreign substance as a potential threat as soon as they are breathed into the sinus cavity. The immune system’s immediate response to these foreign invaders is to produce antibodies. The first time the body encounters an allergen, only a small quantity of antibodies are released. Subsequent exposures, however, will result in the release of greater quantities of antibodies being released.

With each repeated exposure, the body will adjust the antibodies released to the specific allergen. These antibodies stimulate an initial respiratory response, causing histamines to be released. Histamines are directly responsible for standard allergy symptoms, including runny nose, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes. Histamines are also responsible for the chemical response that causes itchy skin and inflammation as an allergic response.  The release of histamine and the symptoms it produces are the body’s attempt to get rid of the invading allergen.

Roughly 30 percent of the American population is genetically predisposed to pollen allergies. While most people can breathe in pollen and not be affected, for the people who can’t, pollen season can be annoying and uncomfortable.

Individuals who are genetically predisposed usually begin experiencing symptoms in early childhood. Those with a family history of pollen allergies are at greater risk of developing allergies. If just one parent suffers from pollen allergies, a child will have only a 25 percent chance of also developing those allergies. However, if both parents suffer from a pollen allergy, their children will have a 75-80 percent chance of developing an allergic response.


Pollen and Asthma

Approximately 20 million Americans suffer from asthma. A chronic condition of the respiratory system, asthma symptoms are the result of hypersensitivity to triggers like common allergens, stress, and vigorous exercise.

Common asthma symptoms include shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, wheezing, and coughing. Each of these symptoms is caused by airway constriction and respiratory inflammation. These frightening and uncomfortable symptoms can all be reversed immediately with proper treatment.

Extrinsic asthma symptoms are those which can be traced to exposure to a specific allergen. Pollen is one of the most common culprit, often causing the body to release large quantities of histamines, increasing mucus production in the respiratory system and producing inflammation in the lungs.

Histamines can also cause muscle contractions in the lungs resulting in wheezing and chest tightening. These histamines can also increase blood vessel permeability. Although rare, in extreme situations, this can result in decreased blood pressure and anaphylactic shock.

The rate of asthma is on the rise. Increasing by 75 percent between 1980 and 1994, asthma is responsible for approximately 5,000 deaths each year.

What is Pollen?

While pollen is one of the most common allergy and asthma triggers, its original intent isn’t destruction, but reproduction. Pollen is a microscopic particle produced by plant reproductive systems. When successfully transferred to the appropriate part of a flower, the result is fertilization and the production of a viable seed.

Some plants are capable of self-pollination. Others require help from insects that transport pollen from flower to flower. Some plants, however, actually release pollen to drift through the air in search of a flower to pollinate. Common species that rely on the wind to aid pollination include oak trees, ragweed, and several species of grass.

Not every type of airborne pollen produces the same allergic response in allergy sufferers. The size of the pollen particles, as well as the chemical composition and shape of the particles also contribute to its triggering ability. The most common allergy culprits in the U.S. include lamb’s quarter, ragweed, Russian thistle, and sagebrush. Certain trees can also trigger severe allergies, including oak, elm, ash, hickory, and pecan. Also, certain species of North American grasses can cause allergic responses in individuals. The most common offenders are Kentucky bluegrass, Bermuda grass, Timothy grass, and Johnson grass.

Airborne pollen is the type generally reported in weather updates and pollen counts. The typical pollen count is a measure of how much pollen is contained in a cubic meter of air. The highest concentrations of airborne pollen usually occur on warm, dry mornings.

The physical removal of offending plants does little to alleviate allergy symptoms. This is because pollen can travel hundreds of miles carried on air currents. For example, common ragweed has the ability to produce over 1 million pollen grains in a single day and travel over 1 hundred miles on the wind. Unfortunately, it takes only 20 tiny grains of ragweed pollen in one cubic meter of air to trigger allergy symptoms.


What To Do About Pollen

First, those affected by allergy-triggering pollen should keep doors and windows shut when the pollen count is high. Using additional room or duct filters to condition indoor air is another measure allergy sufferers can take to reduce exposure to pollen.

Some personal room filtration systems can effectively remove pollen and other allergens from indoor air. Pollen is relatively large in comparison to most airborne particulates, measure between 10 and 60 microns in diameter. Due to its size, most indoor air purifiers will be sufficient.

While pollen is the most common trigger for allergies and asthma, it is not the only offender. The Third National Health and Nutrition Study found over 27 percent of the tested population were positive for dust mite allergies, while more than 26 percent tested positive for allergies linked to German cockroach droppings. Another 17 percent of those tested were positive for feline allergies.

If pollen is triggering your asthma or allergies, a personal air purifier can help put your breathing at ease.

Find out which air purifier is right for you today.


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