For thousands of years, the natural world has presented myriad threats to human beings, but most of these threats have been mastered in some way. From domesticated animals and agriculture to advancements in medical science like glasses and medication, we humans have most hurdles figured out.
Still, conscientious parents offer two bowls of candy during Halloween: peanut-free and regular. Not all families can support a pet when they’re sneezing out of their clothes and their eyes are watering. Whether they’re deadly or simply inconvenient, allergies are some of nature’s most stubborn obstacles impeding the daily lives of countless people. Peanuts and pollen are certainly common perpetrators, but the scope of allergens is much more expansive than this potent duo: Latex, bugs, and molds can all do just as much damage.
Given the large scope of items to which people are allergic, over 50 million Americans are allergic to something, placing allergies among the most ubiquitous chronic illnesses in the United States. That many allergens aren’t necessarily harmful begs the question, “Why are we allergic?” If we love our furry friends and if peanuts are indeed as nutritious as they are delicious, then why do those things launch our immune systems into attack mode?
What Are Allergies?
Immune systems are elaborate security systems, not only keeping intruders out, but neutralizing intruders who’ve passed initial defenses. What makes an allergen different from a more universally harmful pathogen is that, while the body tags allergens as pathogens, allergens aren’t actually harmful. Your body would rather be safe than sorry, essentially. In accordance with evolution, overactive immune systems are better for us than underactive ones in the long run, so here we are, a species whose bodies fight quixotically against benign substances.
The process of noting allergens as harmful is known as “sensitization.” Through inhalation or ingestion, an allergen enters the body. Cells memorize the properties of the allergen, which triggers the production of antibodies capable of thwarting future instances of that allergen’s trespassing. If the allergen ever returns, the immune response is triggered, watering unsuspecting eyeballs and constricting unsuspecting throats. A baby may inhale pollen from its stroller, and for the rest of its life, its face will flood in the spring. Generally, other symptoms of allergies include nausea, swelling of the tongue, or sneezing.
Evolution Has Made Us Hypochondriacs?
Not completely. Allergies may have risen among us because of modern home environments. Modern living spaces are cleaner than they’ve ever been, offering less and less traffic to pollen, dust, and pests. Scientists believe that this cleanliness has made our bodies more sensitive than they’d otherwise be. When a child’s body develops tolerance against many different germs, its body is also better at differentiating between what’s harmless and what’s harmful. In general, children need to play outside so that they become used to different things going in and out of the body. Toddlers ought to be eating stuff off the floor.
Parents can also facilitate this exposure in a less erratic way. Introducing common ingestible allergens to children (from babies to adolescents) in very small quantities potentially strengthens those children against future allergic reactions. These common allergens are foods like nuts, shellfish, milk, and soy.
A great way to figure out what medications or lifestyle changes to employ is to use an at home allergy test, which is usually capable of discerning about 40 common allergies, from pet dander to pollen. To begin an allergy test, you’ll usually have to register whatever testing devices you have with the test provider. Once bookkeeping is in order, you’ll have to expand your phlebotomy skills by collecting a blood sample, but don’t worry because you needn’t collect a vial. Your test provider will usually offer a lancet with which to prick a finger. A nearly painless poke will do the trick. Within days of shipping the sample to either your provider or whomever your provider’s outsourced for testing, you’ll find out what you’re allergic to, and you’ll be able to talk about next steps with your general practitioner. Some allergy test providers will go out of their way to include a consultation with an allergy expert about steps you can take to lessen the effects of your allergies. If the whole test turns up negative, then there’s some peace of mind for you.
Ultimately, if scientists are to discern the exact origin of allergies, then they have a lot more work to do, but many possible explanations lead to many possible remedies to make life with allergies much more bearable. With primary roots in evolution, allergies are potent foes that continue to bother us in the modern day, but there are many ways to fight back or make a difference for our loved ones who have allergies.