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Healthcare 101: What Are Allergies and What Causes Them?

As the weather warms up, allergy season enters overdrive. All that plant pollen floating through the air and sticking to every surface causes many people to experience runny noses, itchy throats and watery eyes. So what causes these allergies anyway? Understanding how allergies work can help you find treatments that work best for you.

Understanding the Immune System

The role of the immune system is to protect the body from foreign invaders. There are numerous types of immune system cells that travel throughout the bloodstream. A critical component of the immune system is the ability to determine what is good for your body and what is harming it. When something is detected that could hurt your body, the immune system makes antibodies that attach to the harmful cell. These antibodies signal other cells to attack or destroy the invader.

How Allergies Work

The word “allergy” comes from ancient Greek terms for “other work.” This refers to the tendency of some immune systems to experience abnormal reactions to ‘normal’ items in their environment. Originally, scientists believed that all types of sensitivity were allergic reactions. Now, researchers have discovered the specific cells that contribute to seasonal allergies.

A healthy immune system easily distinguishes between harmless compounds and those that trigger disease. In people with allergies, however, these signals get mixed. Suddenly, objectively harmless compounds — such as pollen — get flagged as harmful invaders. The immune system then creates antibodies to target that particular allergen. This means that the next time you are exposed to the allergen, the immune system attacks.

An immune system response to the allergen involves the release of histamines, which leads to the classic allergy symptoms of sneezing, itchy nose or eyes, runny nose and watery eyes. This reaction persists each and every time you come into contact with the allergen in the future. For people who suffer from seasonal allergies, this histamine response may continue throughout most of the spring season.

Could It Be COVID-19?

The good news is…probably not. Seasonal allergies can bring some symptoms that appear similar to those of COVID-19, including fatigue and sore throat. But the major symptoms for each do not really overlap.

The most common COVID-19 symptoms include cough, fever and shortness of breath, which don’t usually happen with allergies. More common allergy symptoms include sneezing and itchy, watery eyes; those two things don’t usually happen with COVID-19.

Still not sure? Check out this Venn diagram from the CDC to better understand your symptoms.

How Allergy Medications Help

Fortunately, there are medications that prevent the immune system overreaction from occurring. Many allergy medications are antihistamines, which block the histamines being released by your body. This prevents you from developing the allergic response. Antihistamine medications are available in over-the-counter or prescription format. Your medical care provider can help you determine which medications are most appropriate for your allergies.

If you have been suffering from a stuffy nose or congestion for a period of time, keep an eye on it as it might turn into a sinus infection. If it does, visit an urgent care center near you to help get you back on your feet and enjoy the beautiful spring weather.

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