Allergies: A springtime horror story

An army of silent foes bent on destruction. It’s hard to see. Hard to breathe. And then the phone rings. The allergies…they’re coming from inside the body!

“Oklahoma in the springtime is like a horror movie for people with allergies,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist Hal Scofield, M.D. “Except instead of an unstoppable killer, we’ve got pollen, spores and mold causing unstoppable sneezing and headaches.”

And it’s getting worse. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America listed Oklahoma City 4th and Tulsa 19th on their list of 2014 Spring Allergy Capitals—up from 9th and 21st last year.

And there’s a twist ending to the horror story, Scofield said. It’s not the allergens in the air causing all the ruckus—it’s the immune system’s response to otherwise-harmless substances.

“We want our immune systems at the ready when a virus or bacteria enters the body,” he said. “They recognize the enemy and attack, which keeps us healthy.”

But the immune system sometimes has trouble distinguishing a real threat from a substance that’s just passing through, like pollen.

“It’s the difference between finding a fly in your car and finding a wasp,” Scofield said. “You probably don’t want either of them, but we react to the situations differently.”

So when an allergen enters the body, the immune system mistakenly thinks it’s an attack and responds with antibodies. The antibodies surround the allergens and bind to them, releasing histamines into the system. Histamines interact with the nasal mucous membrane, causing the symptoms of an allergic reaction—watery eyes, a runny nose and congestion.

“People who take antihistamines aren’t stopping the body’s reaction to the allergens. They’re blocking the action of the histamines released by the reaction,” he said.

Histamines don’t just come out during an immune response, though. They have multiple purposes—including keeping people awake. That’s why antihistamines cause drowsiness, Scofield said.

Researchers at OMRF are studying allergies and the immune system to understand why the overreaction occurs and how to best treat it.