A few years ago my father was informed by the doctor, after some tests, that he suffered from allergies: several, in fact, one of which was cats.
Being the cat person that I am, and in view of the fact that at the time my parents still had Tiger, an old friend (with an admittedly unimaginative name), the news struck me hard. (A lot harder than my father, who never had much to do with Tiger beyond occasionally throwing him out of a chair.)
What if I had inherited this allergy? I thought in horror. How would I cope? My course of action seemed clear: never let a doctor test me for allergies.
For others, it’s not that simple, because allergies can make you just as miserable as a real disease — not surprising, since the symptoms of both result from the activation of your immune system. It’s just that, with an allergy, it’s actually something harmless your body is responding to with sneezing, watery eyes, nasal congestion, a rash, an upset stomach, hives, lung spasms (as in asthma), or a combination of any or all of these.
The most severe reaction, usually in response to bee or wasp stings, penicillin or other drugs or certain foods, is anaphylactic shock, characterized by a severe drop in blood pressure, an itchy rash or hives, breathing difficulty, abdominal pain, swelling of the tongue or throat and diarrhea. It can lead to asphyxiation and death.
An allergic reaction begins when the immune system, mistaking, say, ragweed pollen for a virus, manufactures special antibodies called immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short. These combine with the allergen molecules and attach themselves to special cells that release histamine and other compounds that affect the blood vessels and mucous membranes, leading to swelling and congestion.
Strangely, you don’t react to the substance you’re allergic to the first time you’re in contact with it: you react the second, or third, or even the thousandth, because it may take that many exposures for your immune system to become sensitized to the allergen. That’s why allergies can seem to appear overnight.
Determining what ‘s causing the allergic reaction isn’t easy. Doctors consider medical history and symptoms, and sometimes give the test my father underwent, in which small doses of common allergens are injected just below the skin. Redness and swelling can indicate allergies. (Unfortunately, sometimes you get redness and swelling anyway!)
The best way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the stuff you’re allergic to. This can be difficult if you’re allergic to something ubiquitous like house dust, especially since you’re not really allergic to dust, but to a protein produced by the mites that live in it. It’s impossible to escape dust mites, since two million of them live in the average mattress and a dozen or more are probably nibbling skin flakes in your eyebrows right now. Pollen is similarly almost impossible to avoid. And many cat and dog-lovers, like me, are unwilling to give up their pets, allergies or no allergies.
With these people, doctors sometimes try desensitization, injecting small amounts of the substance that causes the allergy under the skin: enough to cause the body to make antibodies, but not enough to trigger an allergic reaction. Through repeated injections, the body learns not to attack the substance.
Making these shots requires companies like Sweden’s Allergon to vacuum weed pollen from fields, pull the stings out of wasps and bees, collect, freeze-dry and powder the hair of dogs, cows, cats and reindeer, gather horse dander, and breed dust mites (which are also ground, freeze-dried and powdered) in human dandruff purchased from Swedish barber shops. Sounds like a fun place to work, doesn’t it?
These treatments help some people a lot, others a little, and some not at all. Sometimes all that can be done is treating the symptoms, with antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs or decongestants.
A better method could be on the way, though: in 1986 scientists identified the receptors in the immune system’s cells into which the IgE antibodies “plug,” triggering the allergic reaction. In a decade or so there may be drugs to block these receptors.
Until then, I’m afraid my final word on the subject must be “Gesundheit!”