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What happens when people with allergies encounter an allergen?

Deborah Davis
OBGYN (Obstetrics & Gynecology)
Allergies are an overreaction of the body's natural defense system that helps fight infections (immune system).  The immune system normally protects the body from viruses and bacteria by producing antibodies to fight them.  In an allergic reaction, the immune system starts fighting substanes that are usually harmless (such as dust, mites, pollen, or a medicine) as though these substances were trying to attack the body.  This overreaction can cause a rash, itchy eyes, a runny nose, difficulty breathing, nausea and diarrhea.
When people with allergies encounter an allergen, their immune system starts making antibodies - specifically IgE antibodies. These antibodies are specific to the allergen, like cat dander, ragweed or dust.

Thousands of these antibodies bind with the surface of special cells in body tissue known as mast cells, which lie in wait for your next exposure to the allergen in question. While they wait, these mast cells absorb a number of different chemicals from the blood to aid in the body's defense. They store these chemicals in very tiny granules. When you're re-exposed, the offending allergen binds to the IgE antibodies that are bound to the mast cells, making the mast cells release the chemicals.

One of these chemicals, called histamine, is probably quite familiar to you. It's one of the key players in the allergic response system and causes a great number of the reactions, including runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, and sneezing. Most anti-allergy medications treat you by blocking histamine from binding to its receptor; these medications are called antihistamines.

The allergic reaction can have an early and a late phase. Generally, the early phase may start within a few minutes of exposure. The late phase, on the other hand, may start several hours after initial exposure. The early phase gets caused by the release of the chemicals stored in the mast cells' granules. The late phase is caused by other various inflammatory cells recruited into the area.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.