What Is an Allergy?

Allergies are an abnormal response of the immune system. People who have allergies have an immune system that reacts to a usually harmless substance in the environment. This substance (pollen, mold, animal dander, etc.) is called an allergen.

Allergies are a very common problem, affecting at least 2 out of every 10 Americans.

What Happens During an Allergic Reaction?

When a person is exposed to an allergen and starts to have an allergic reaction, a series of events takes place:

  1. The body starts to produce a specific type of antibody, called IgE, to bind the allergen.
  2. The antibodies attach to a form of blood cell called a mast cell. Mast cells can be found in the airways, in the GI tract, and elsewhere. The presence of mast cells in the airways and GI tract makes these areas more susceptible to allergen exposure.
  3. The allergens bind to the IgE, which is attached to the mast cell. This triggers a reaction that allows the mast cells  to release a variety of chemicals including histamine, which causes most of the symptoms of an allergy, including itchiness or runny nose.

If the allergen is in the air, the allergic reaction will likely occur in the eyes, nose, and lungs. If the allergen is ingested, the allergic reaction often occurs in the mouth, stomach, and intestines. Sometimes enough chemicals are released from the mast cells to cause a reaction throughout the body, such as hives, decreased blood pressure, shock, or loss of consciousness.

What Are the Symptoms of Allergies?

Symptoms of allergies can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe (anaphylactic).

  • Mild allergic reactions include those symptoms that affect a specific area of the body such as a rash, itchy, watery eyes, and some congestion. Mild reactions do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Moderate reactions include symptoms that spread to other parts of the body. These may include itchiness or difficulty breathing.
  • A severe reaction, called anaphylaxis, is a rare, life-threatening emergency in which the response to the allergen is intense and affects the whole body. It may begin with the sudden onset of itching of the eyes or face and progress within minutes to more serious symptoms, including abdominal pain, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea, as well as varying degrees of swellings that can make breathing and swallowing difficult. Mental confusion or dizziness may also be symptoms, since anaphylaxis causes a quick drop in blood pressure.

Does Everyone Have Allergies?

No, not everyone has allergies. People inherit a tendency to be allergic, although not to any specific allergen. When one parent is allergic, their child has a 50% chance of having allergies. That risk jumps to 75% if both parents have allergies.