What are allergies?

An allergy is an excessive reaction from our body to substances which it considers harmful, even though they really aren't. In other words: a normal reaction would be an immune reaction to a harmful or dangerous substance. That is not the case here. An allergy comes from "excess of zeal" by our immune system, a distortion in our body, which causes reactions to a strange element, even though it isn't really dangerous or harmful.

We call those exaggerated reactions "hypersensitivity", or "allergies". The supposedly harmful substances are called "allergens".

Our immune system has a "database" of strange substances with which it has already had contact, and of the appropriate response to each one of them. Each time the allergen attacks, the body will reply with specific, memorized antibodies.

Sensitization - When a person has "memorized" an allergen, he or she is said to be sensitized, meaning that his/her immune system has memorized that substance.

Atopy - Usually hereditary, atopy manifests itself mostly through eczema, hay fever and allergic asthma. Atopic people have a predisposition to create antibodies which react to the allergens in the environment (pollens, molds, dust...)

Hay fever

Slightly misnamed, as it is caused by pollen, not "hay" itself - in fact, its more correct designation is pollinosis. There are two kinds of pollens: anemophilous, or wind-driven, which are usually present in the atmosphere, and thus are more harmful; and entomophilous (insect-driven), which are almost never found in the air, and usually pose no danger. The former, therefore, are responsible for pollinosis.

The most common plants involved in pollinosis are grasses, trees and weeds.

Usually, trees pollinate from January to May, grasses pollinate from May to June, and weeds from July to October. These dates may vary from place to place.

If you suffer from pollinosis:

  • Avoid tasks like mowing the lawn.
  • Avoid holidays in the country during the "dangerous" times of the year, especially if the weather is hot and dry (rain helps reduce the levels of pollen in the air). During those times, it's better to go to mountains or a beach.
  • Close the car's windows when travelling.
  • In the late afternoon, pollen counts increase, so close most windows at home.
  • If  you have a blocked nose, don't overdo the use of decongestant products, as they can, in time, seriously damage the nasal mucus. Instead, use physiologic serum, or the following homemade alternative: 9 grams of kitchen salt in a liter of  boiled water. Sprays made from sea water, available in most pharmacies, are also effective.
  • Don't smoke; it worsens nasal congestion...

Allergy to house dust

There are several types of house dust, but there is something in common to all of them: the famous dust mites!

Mites are small arachnids, invisible to the naked eye. They feed on shed human skin cells, and are found especially in clothes, mattresses, pillows and blankets, because they also need humidity, from sweat or mold, to live, and those are the best places to find them. They also thrive in carpets.

If you suffer from allergy to dust:

  • Leave the bed open for a while after you get up in the morning. Don't make it immediately after you rise.
  • Vacuum the mattress at least once a week, preferably using a cleaner with a HEPA filter, and change the sheets weekly as well.
  • Ideally, the bedroom should not be too warm or dry, to avoid drying up the mucus. If it is, buy a humidifier, but do not use any perfumes, or create too much humidity.
  • Wash the curtains often. Having them is a good idea, as they retain the dust coming in from windows. Carpets do the same, and are helpful as well, provided you keep them clean.
  • Prefer synthetic materials in your home, as dust mites don't thrive so much in them. Being synthetic is enough; a label saying "anti-allergic" usually makes no difference, and raises the price.

Treating allergies

There is no miraculous treatment for allergies. The basic principle in preventing them is to avoid the allergens, which is far from easy, as pollens and mites are almost everywhere.

The most effective treatment is desensitization, or, more precisely, hyposensitization; in other words, to reduce your immune system's "database". If your immune system "forgets" that allergen, it won't react as intensely when in contact with it again. This kind of treatment requires patience and accompanying by a doctor, as it consists in regular injections of small quantities of the allergen, in growing doses, to get your body used to its presence. On average, this treatment takes 3 years.

Immediate / emergency treatment means using antihistamines. You should avoid using these too often, as your body can get used to them, meaning that they lose their efficiency. They can also cause secondary effects such as drowsiness.

Pets at home

Despite what you may have been told, all it requires is for you to keep them clean, as if they were carpets. :) Most doctors, traditionally, used to tell you to avoid having pets, but, these days, it is recognized that the advantages of having one or more devoted animal friends far outweighs the minuscule potential allergy problems that can arise from clean, healthy pets.