If you’ve lived in Oklahoma for any length of time, you’re familiar with the usual seasonal allergy suspects: pollen, dust and mold. But have you ever wondered why they impact the human body?
 
While the temptation might be to blame those blooming trees or swirling prairie winds, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation immunologist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., says the real culprit is your own immune system.
 
“Your immune system has developed to protect you from dangerous things like the flu, strep, viruses and other real invaders,” said Chakravarty, a physician and medical researcher. “One of the key functions of the immune system is to recognize what is safe and normal and what is out to cause you harm.”
 
When flu and other viruses enter the body, said Chakravarty, the immune system is right to mount an attack. However, when it comes to allergies, your body is overreacting to mostly harmless substances. 
 
There’s nothing sinister about pollen, said Chakravarty, but as far as your immune system is concerned, it might as well be ripped from the pages of a Stephen King novel.  “Allergies cause an inappropriate immune response that attacks harmless things you pick up from the environment.”
 
When an allergen enters the body, the immune system attacks it with antibodies, which bind to the allergen. This causes the release of histamines, special compounds in our cells that trigger the allergic response.
 
“The histamines launch a cascade of symptoms like inflammation, swelling, watery eyes, congestion and sneezing, all those allergic symptoms we look for in spring and fall,” Chakravarty said. “Fortunately, these symptoms typically are more aggravating than they are dangerous.”
 
When people take antihistamine medications like Allegra, Claritin or Zyrtec, the drugs don’t actually stop the body’s reaction to allergens. Instead, they block the action of the histamines that are released.
 
Aside from antihistamines, another common treatment for allergies comes in the form of decongestants. These medicines open nasal and sinus passages by reducing swelling and allowing drainage to occur. However, these medicines can raise blood pressure, and Chakravarty recommends consulting your physician before using any decongestant for more than a few days, as they can affect blood pressure and other underlying conditions.
 
Over-the-counter nasal sprays that contain low doses of steroids can also help relieve inflammation in the nasal passages.
 
Although there are no cures for allergies, researchers are studying allergies and the immune system to understand why the overreaction occurs and how best to combat it.
 
In the meantime, those with serious allergies should limit their time outdoors, minimize dust in the home and find an allergy medication that prevents sneezing and congestion without causing excessive drowsiness.
 
“We want to develop therapies that will tell your immune system to calm down and relax, because it’s only pollen or dust,” said Chakravarty. “In general, seasonal allergies can make you miserable and can be a real nuisance. But on the bright side, allergies aren’t causing real damage and, for most of us, they only last a little while.”