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Allergic Reactions


Normally, the immune system functions as the body's defense against invading agents such as bacteria and viruses. In most allergic reactions, however, the immune system is responding to a false alarm. When an allergic person first comes into contact with an allergen, the immune system treats the allergen as an invader and mobilizes to attack. The immune system does this by generating large amounts of a type of antibody (a disease-fighting protein) called immunoglobin E, or IgE. Each IgE antibody is specific for one particular allergenic (allergy-producing) substance. In the case of pollen allergy, the antibody is specific for each type of pollen: one type of antibody may be produced to react against oak pollen and another against ragweed pollen, for example.

These IgE molecules are special because IgE is the only class of antibody that attaches tightly to the body's mast cells, which are tissue cells, and to basophils, which are blood cells. When the allergen next encounters its specific IgE, it attaches to the antibody like a key fitting into a lock, signaling the cell to which the IgE is attached to release (and in some cases to produce) powerful inflammatory chemicals like histamine, cytokines, and leukotrienes. These chemicals act on tissues in various parts of the body, such as the respiratory system, and cause the symptoms of allergy.

Some people with allergy develop asthma. The symptoms of asthma include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath due to a narrowing of the bronchial passages (airways) in the lungs, and to excess mucus production and inflammation. Asthma can be disabling and sometimes can be fatal. If wheezing and shortness of breath accompany allergy symptoms, it is a signal that the bronchial tubes also have become involved, indicating the need for medical attention.
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References and Sources: Medline, Pubmed, National Institutes of Health.


last update: November 2008


This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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