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Allergies and the Immune System

Allergies are disorders of the immune system. Most allergic reactions are a result of an immune system that responds to a "false alarm." When a harmless substance such as dust, mold, or pollen is encountered by a person who is allergic to that substance, the immune system may react dramatically by producing antibodies that "attack" the allergen (a substance that produces allergic reactions). The result of an allergen entering a susceptible person's body may include wheezing, itching, runny nose, watery or itchy eyes, and other symptoms.

What is the immune system?

The purpose of the immune system is to keep infectious microorganisms, such as certain bacteria, viruses, and fungi, out of the body, and to destroy any infectious microorganisms that do invade the body. The immune system is made up of a complex and vital network of cells and organs that protect the body from infection.

Illustration of the immune system
The Immune System - Click to Enlarge

The organs involved with the immune system are called the lymphoid organs, which affect growth, development, and the release of lymphocytes (a certain type of white blood cell). The blood vessels and lymphatic vessels are important parts of the lymphoid organs, because they carry the lymphocytes to and from different areas in the body. Each lymphoid organ plays a role in the production and activation of lymphocytes. Lymphoid organs include:

  • Adenoids (two glands located at the back of the nasal passages)

  • Appendix (a small tube that is connected to the large intestine)

  • Blood vessels (the arteries, veins, and capillaries through which blood flows)

  • Bone marrow (the soft, fatty tissue found in bone cavities)

  • Lymph nodes (small organs shaped like beans, which are located throughout the body and connect via the lymphatic vessels)

  • Lymphatic vessels (a network of channels throughout the body that carries lymphocytes to the lymphoid organs and bloodstream)

  • Peyer's patches (lymphoid tissue in the small intestine)

  • Spleen (a fist-sized organ located in the abdominal cavity)

  • Thymus (two lobes that join in front of the trachea behind the breast bone)

  • Tonsils (two oval masses in the back of the throat)

Disorders of the immune system

When the immune system does not function properly, it leaves the body susceptible to an array of diseases. Allergies and hypersensitivity to certain substances are considered immune system disorders. In addition, the immune system plays a role in the rejection process of transplanted organs or tissue. Other examples of immune disorders include:

  • Cancer of the immune system

  • Autoimmune diseases, such as juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and anemia

  • Immune complex diseases, such as viral hepatitis and malaria

  • Immunodeficiency diseases, such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)

How does a person become allergic?

Allergens can be inhaled, ingested, or enter through the skin. Common allergic reactions, such as hay fever, certain types of asthma, and hives are linked to an antibody produced by the body called immunoglobulin E (IgE). Each IgE antibody can be very specific, reacting against certain pollens and other allergens. In other words, a person can be allergic to one type of pollen, but not another. When a susceptible person is exposed to an allergen, the body starts producing a large quantity of corresponding IgE antibodies. Subsequent exposure to the same allergen may result in an allergic reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction will vary depending on the type and amount of allergen encountered and the manner in which the body's immune system reacts to that allergen.

Allergies can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Generally, allergies are more common in children. However, a first-time occurrence can happen at any age, or recur after many years of remission. Allergies tend to run in families. Hormones, stress, smoke, perfume, or environmental irritants may also play a role in the development or severity of allergies.

What is anaphylactic shock?

Anaphylactic shock, also called anaphylaxis, is a severe, life-threatening reaction to certain allergens. Body tissues may swell, including tissues in the throat. Anaphylactic shock is also characterized by a sudden drop in blood pressure. The following are the most common symptoms of anaphylactic shock. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Other symptoms may include:

  • Itching and hives over most of the body

  • Swelling of the throat and tongue

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Stomach cramps, nausea, or diarrhea

  • Shock

  • Loss of consciousness

Anaphylactic shock can be caused by an allergic reaction to a drug, food, serum, insect venom, allergen extract, or chemical. Some people who are aware of their allergic reactions or allergens carry an emergency anaphylaxis kit that contains epinephrine (a drug that stimulates the adrenal glands and increases the rate and force of the heartbeat).