An allergy is an exaggerated reaction by our immune system in response to exposure to certain foreign substances. These foreign substances are normally seen by the body as harmless in non-allergic individuals and so no response is elicited. In allergic individuals however, the body recognizes these substances as foreign and one arm of the immune system generates an exaggerated response. Substances that generate such reactions are called ‘allergens’
A family history, in parents or siblings makes an individual more susceptible to developing an allergy, even though the environment plays a significant role. Allergies can develop at any age but many individuals outgrow them over time. It is estimated that between 10% and 30% of individuals living in the industrialized world live with allergic conditions.
When the body’s immune system reacts to harmful foreign substances, it produces antibodies which are protective proteins that are specifically targeted against these antigens. These antibodies are protective and help destroy the foreign particle by attaching to its surface, thereby making it easier for other immune cells to destroy it.
In allergic individuals however, a specific type of antibody is developed in response to certain normally harmless foreign substances. There has to be prior contact with a foreign substance in order for the immune system to be poised to react against it. There is often a period of sensitization ranging from a few days to a few years before an allergic reaction occurs. It is therefore impossible to be allergic to something an individual has truly never been exposed to in the past.
The areas of the body most commonly affected by allergic reactions are the skin, nose, eyes, the gut and the lungs. They are responsible for common conditions such as hay fever, asthma, conjunctivitis, atopic dermatitis, urticarial and a severe condition known as allergic shock. Common allergens include, dust mites, pollens from trees and grasses, mould spores, plants, dyes, chemicals, cosmetics, insect venoms, medications, vaccines and a host of others.
What are some of the measures that can be taken to minimize exposure to foreign substances that provoke allergic reactions? We can use a dampened cloth to minimize the distribution of dust through the air. Grasses, weeds and trees tend to pollinate during the early morning hours. Susceptible individuals should keep windows closed during this period.
Allergen-proof casings should be used for pillows and mattresses and tapes can be applied over zippers to prevent leaks. Feathers or foam rubber should be avoided for pillows as they tend to trap moisture and promote mould and dust mite growth. Use Dacron or other synthetics instead. It is best to avoid upholstered furnishings but to use wood, leather, vinyl or rubberized canvas furniture instead.