For many of us, summer brings simple pleasures: picnics in the park, pistachio ice cream, walks with the dog. However, for those with severe allergies these basic activities can trigger miserable sneezing fits, nasal congestion, itchy eyes and even rashes. Seemingly harmless to most people, a spectrum of substances found in everyday life can cause debilitating allergic reactions. So what can we do about it?
An Allergy by Definition
When the body is exposed to an allergen through contact, consumption or inhalation, it produces an antibody called Immunoglobulin E or IgE. Antibodies guard against potentially dangerous particles but in the case of allergies, IgE overreacts to harmless substances commonly found in your everyday environment. As a safety mechanism, IgE binds to the allergen and releases histamine (an immune response compound), which causes the array of symptoms in an allergic reaction. These symptoms vary from person to person, and can include itchy watery eyes, runny nose, hives, sneezing, abdominal pain or even vomiting.
The most severe type of allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, causes the entire body to respond with all-over hives and itching, wheezing and shortness of breath, cramps, tingling in the extremities, tightness in the throat and if left untreated, can cause death.
The first time someone is exposed to an allergen they produce antibodies; however, they do not have an allergic reaction until their second encounter with the substance. With each subsequent exposure, the allergic reaction becomes more pronounced. Dr. Xu Zhixin, a Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU) pediatrician who specializes in allergies, explains, "The more times a person is exposed to the allergen, the reaction becomes more severe. In the beginning you may just have congestion or sneezing, but later it can become asthma." As a result of the progressive tendency of allergies, avoiding your allergen is paramount to avoiding allergic reactions. To diagnose an allergy, your doctor can perform a skin or blood test after discussing your medical history and doing a physical exam.
What’s Your Poison?
Allergies come in all shapes and sizes, but they’ve been separated into three separate categories: food, airborne and the catch-all "other." Within the food category, allergies are grouped further into three major types: dairy (or egg), nut, and seafood. Of all the allergies, food is the most common, found in noticeably high numbers among children. In the US, eight percent of children under the age of four have a food allergy. Food allergies can be hard to monitor in Beijing as many packaged foods don’t list the ingredients in English and eating out can be unreliable. Best to stick to restaurants and dishes you trust and purchase imported packaged foods.
Entering the body through the lungs, airborne allergies are usually associated with seasonal influxes in the level of pollens in the air, but also include dust mites, animal dandruff, perfumes, pesticides and cigarette smoke. By their nature, airborne allergens are hard to avoid, but there are ways to limit contact with them. Sadly, this may mean limiting or eliminating contact with pets. For serious animal lovers, there are allergy-friendly cat and dog breeds that shed minimally or not at all.
Virus, medicine and chemical allergies are lumped together into the final "other" category. In terms of a virus allergen, the immune system overreacts to a pathogen or bacteria, making what could be a simple virus more severe. "The same virus can cause different symptoms in different people," says Xu.
Restricting exposure to allergen-filled air or substances in our everyday lives makes treatment a constant battle. There is no cure for allergies, although long periods of time without contact with the allergen decreases the antibodies in your system, and therefore can decrease the severity of the allergic reaction. In order to slow the escalating intensity of an allergy, Xu implores parents to help their children avoid contact with allergens. With limited exposure, some children grow out of their allergies as they mature and reach adulthood.
However, for those who live with over-active immune systems, there are treatment options available. Among a variety of over-the-counter and prescription drugs available, antihistamines are commonly used to help relieve symptoms.For those suffering severe allergic reactions, steroids can be used to block symptoms before they appear and normalize the immune system. Serious allergy sufferers can also try to reduce their reactions with allergy shots. This treatment requires regular injections designed to increase your tolerance for an allergen by exposing you to controlled dosages. Talk to your doctor about which treatments are best for your child.
Staying Healthy Helps
Beijing has air pollution levels that are five times above the World Health Organization’s standards for safety, creating a frustrating environment for those with airborne allergies. Xu also lists the high number of poplar and willow trees blooming in the spring as a potential source of annoyance. Adding to our woes, the components in air pollution have the potential to become airborne allergens. However, the most important effect air quality has on allergy incidence is that "pollution makes the human airway more sensitive, which makes it more likely to be irritated by an allergen," says Xu.
Allergies are unique in that they are a natural immune response of the body that has become so severe as to be detrimental to your health. Xu recommends allergy suffers make a concerted effort to look after their bodies. If you are not healthy, your immune system is vulnerable and likely to overreact when confronted with a foreign substance.
In the age of antibacterial gels and sterile surroundings, we sometimes forget that good bacteria do indeed exist. In fact, exposure to bacteria in small amounts is essential for building and maintaining a healthy immune system. "Our food, air and environment are very sterilized, and so the body is very sensitive to chemicals and bacteria," says Xu. It sounds like it’s time to put down the sanitizers and get a little grubby; your immune system will thank you for it.