How do allergies work?

Before you blame those beautiful blooming trees and their pollen for your watery eyes and sneezes, consider another culprit that’s closer to the scene of the crime—your immune system.

“Snow shovels gathered dust in our garages this winter, but that means we’re seeing allergens in the air early this year,” said OMRF immunologist Hal Scofield, M.D.

And allergies are serious business in Oklahoma. In 2011, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranked Oklahoma City 5th on its list of the worst cities for fall allergies.

“There’s nothing inherently dangerous or bad about pollen or dust,” Scofield said. “The problem occurs when the immune system overreacts to otherwise harmless substances.”

The immune system is primed to fight off invaders that can make you sick, like bacteria or viruses. But sometimes it gets confused. And for those with allergies, the confusion begins when the body senses a substance like pollen and thinks it’s found a dangerous intruder.

“It’s a bit like trying to shoo a fly away with a rifle,” he said. “Sure, it works, but it’s kind of overkill.”

When an allergen enters the body, the immune system attacks it with antibodies, which then bind to the allergen. When they connect, histamines are released into the system.

“Some people think histamines are things we inhale, but they’re actually chemicals the body itself makes,” Scofield said. “When they interact with the nasal mucous membrane, it causes watering eyes, congestion and runny nose.”

Histamines, like most chemicals in the body, have several jobs. One thing they do is keep us awake and alert, which is why using antihistamine medications to fight allergies often causes drowsiness.

New studies also suggest that our over-emphasis on cleanliness may actually make us sicker. The so-called “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that by keeping ourselves too clean and getting rid of certain parasites, we open ourselves up not only to allergies, but other diseases, as well.

“Parasites, worms and infestations in the gut all work to dampen the immune system,” Scofield said. “They’re doing it to keep themselves alive, but one of the benefits is that they keeps the immune system from becoming hyperactive, like it does when it encounters allergens or some diseases.”

That doesn’t mean we should all try and get intestinal parasites, he said. But it does open up new avenues of research for ways to regulate the immune system for a better quality of life.

In the meantime, Scofield said those with serious allergies should limit their time outdoors and find an allergy medication that strikes the balance between preventing sneezing and congestion without causing disorientation.

“And eat locally made honey,” he said. “There’s an argument to be made that by introducing an element of the pollen into your diet, your body will begin to accept it as a non-threatening substance. Besides, it tastes good, too.”