Mad About Science: Seasonal allergies

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Spring is in the air, and so is a misty cloud of mucus and spittle after a vicious sneeze. Has the pandemic taught us nothing?

Allergens come in many forms. While we might curse the trees and flowers for producing pollen, we should really be cursing our bodies for being so darn imperfect. Over a billion years of evolution on Earth has created a number of weird genetic traits, ranging from the formation of your appendix to our cells treating grains of pollen like some kind of hostile invader, while virtually ignoring things like HIV.

Allergies are the result of our immune system attacking what it perceives to be a threat with extreme force. In most cases, our immune system acts like a tactical strike team with surgical precision and efficiency. When it comes to things we’re allergic to, our body instead opts to throw wave after wave of soldiers at the problem until only ruin remains.

This scorched-earth policy enacted by our immune system causes damage to surrounding tissue, which causes the tissue to swell. Swelling in places like our sinuses causes all sorts of irritating effects, such as pressure on our tear ducts, which makes our eyes water and flush out alien particles, or difficulty breathing as parts of your airway start to close up — known as anaphylaxis. Most of the time, it’s just annoying and causes coughing and sneezing, which is our body’s attempt at forcefully evacuating the airways of any potential threat.

Allergic reactions are most commonly found in areas where bacteria can directly enter our bodies. Seemingly the most common of these are seasonal allergies, caused by airborne particles released by trees, flowers and mold entering the nose and throat. However, we can be allergic to food as well. Certain genes can be activated at birth that can cause potentially lethal allergic reactions throughout your entire lifetime. Celiac disease is the result of two active genes called HLA DQ2 and DQ8. You can look this up or ask a librarian, but it basically means that your body was programmed to perceive the gluten protein found in wheat, rye and barley to be an extreme threat to be destroyed with maximum force.

While Celiac disease isn’t directly lethal, things like tree nut allergies or shellfish allergies can be. I can pick up a loaf of bread so long as I don’t eat it, but the act of simply touching a peanut or a prawn could send someone else into a spiral of anaphylaxis.

It’s worth noting that humans aren’t the only creatures that suffer from allergies. Humanity’s best friend, the dog, is also susceptible to many types of allergens that can manifest in completely different ways than in humans. Food allergies in humans may cause diarrhea, an outbreak of hives or, in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock. Our four-legged friends may suffer from swelling and redness in their ears, which causes them to itch, or you may notice new black spots appearing all along their underbelly and anywhere you can see skin. If left untreated, their skin may become thick and leathery, similar to an elephant’s skin. This is called “lichenification,” and it’s a direct result of untreated allergies.

These black spots of pigmentation are caused by a sudden growth of yeast that’s naturally present on your dog’s skin at all times. Normally, the growth is managed by your dog’s immune system keeping everything in check, but if your dog is suffering from another allergy for a prolonged amount of time, their body sends a signal for reinforcements, which redirects their cells to the gut, allowing the yeast on their skin to reproduce and grow unhindered. Dogs, like humans, can be allergic to any number of proteins found in food. Unlike humans, dogs don’t know any better when it comes to eating, so it’s up to their owners to see the warning signs before it’s too late and change their food source.

Untreated allergies in humans can also cause long-term adverse effects. Prolonged swelling causes cellular damage that can dramatically heighten our risk for cancer over time. We can even suffer from other allergies presenting more dramatically if the primary allergy isn’t being dealt with for a prolonged period of time. An example of this would be that if someone continues to eat wheat products regularly while suffering from Celiac disease, a bee sting could develop into a more serious allergic reaction. It’s worth noting that, as virtually anything involving complex genetic interactions, this isn’t always the case.

Airborne allergies are annoying. Even though we refer to them as seasonal allergies, sometimes it feels like we’re perpetually suffering, no matter the season. The most likely reason for this is that your body is actually allergic to different things. Certain trees and flowers will produce pollen in late spring through summer while days are warm and nights are cool, while others will produce pollen from August until November and general temperature trends downward. 

Pollen isn’t the only culprit for these supposed seasonal allergies. Mold spores will commonly agitate allergies without a seasonal requirement. Mold only needs two things to really flourish: warmth and water. If you have a relatively stable temperature in your house but a tiny drip somewhere, that’s enough to keep mold propagating all year long.

Treating allergies can be tricky business. If you feel you’re suffering from perpetual allergies, you may want to speak with an allergist — if there is an underlying problem that’s worsening your allergies, they may be able to help with medication or lifestyle changes that can improve your overall health and soften the sting of that seasonal sneeze.

Stay curious, 7B.

This topic was suggested by Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey. Thanks, Lyndsie!

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