March 12, 2024

Allergies and immune system function: Are they connected?

Ever wonder why colds and allergies present many of the same symptoms, such as runny nose and sneezing? Allergic reactions begin in the immune system, which triggers your body’s response to protect you from a perceived or actual invader. This means allergies and immune system function are inherently linked.

Allergic reactions cause inflammation throughout your body. This is part of your immune system’s natural defense mechanism, but if left untreated, chronic inflammation can contribute to disease and poor immune system health. So, seeking diagnosis and treatment for your allergies is important to relieve your symptoms and improve your overall health.

We reached out to Savanna Gary, a physician assistant (PA) at Mission Health Center – Rutherford, for more information about allergies, viruses, common symptoms and how to get relief.

How your immune system works

Your immune system helps protect you from germs — including viruses, bacteria and fungi — that can cause infections and illness. When the immune system detects a foreign invader, it sets off a chemical reaction, producing immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. This triggers the release of histamines, which cause common allergy symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes (allergic rhinitis). Other immune system responses affect your stomach lining or your skin, resulting in rashes or eczema.

When you have an allergy, your immune system mistakes an irritant, or allergen, for a harmful foreign invader, triggering your immune response.

Understanding allergies

Roughly 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 children have seasonal allergies, and these numbers have risen in recent years. People with seasonal allergies react to pollen from plants, such as trees in the spring, grasses in the summer or ragweed or mold in the fall. The amount and type of pollen in the air depends on where you live and the time of year. In general, warmer weather means more pollen. As temperatures rise with climate change, allergy season may last longer and be more severe in some parts of the country.

Allergy symptoms

According to Gary, “some of the most common allergy symptoms are runny nose, cough, drainage down the back of the throat or scratchy throat and itchy/puffy eyes.”

Allergy symptom severity ranges widely, from irritating symptoms like fatigue and itchy eyes to life-threatening emergencies such as difficulty breathing and a compromised airway.

Common allergens

Aside from pollen, common allergens include:

  • Mold
  • Dust
  • Pet dander
  • Insect venom
  • Foods
  • Medications
  • Contact allergens (e.g., latex or fragrance)

Risk factors

Allergies tend to run in the family. If you have allergies, your children are more likely to develop them, too. Likewise, immune sensitivity is more prevalent in children with allergic parents. Allergies usually start in childhood or puberty, but it’s possible to develop them at any age. Some allergies get less severe with age or even go away altogether, while others are lifelong.

Environmental factors also play a role in allergy development. For example, children who live in a dusty house or are exposed to cigarette smoke or air pollution may have a higher risk of developing allergies.

Allergies and immune system health

Allergies may make you more susceptible to certain infections and viruses, such as a sinus infection. The reverse can also be true. For example, some viruses can overstimulate your immune system and trigger allergies and asthma.

How to tell if someone has allergies or a virus

“With a virus, the same symptoms as allergies can be present, which sometimes makes it difficult to differentiate during allergy season,” said Gary. “Some other symptoms that indicate a virus over allergies are fever, chills, vomiting and diarrhea.”

 

How to treat allergies

The good news is you can take steps to treat allergies with prevention, medication and immunotherapy. Always talk to your doctor first to come up with a plan that works for you.

Prevention

One way to treat allergies is to prevent exposure to the substances or foods that set off your allergic reaction. This may mean avoiding certain foods, like milk or peanuts, or staying indoors when pollen or mold spore counts are high. Other preventive measures include washing bedding and curtains often and making sure to address mold promptly.

Gary offered additional tips to prevent seasonal allergies, such as, “keeping windows closed, vacuuming regularly, getting a higher-rated air filter for the home, showering and/or changing clothes if a patient has been outdoors in pollen and wearing a mask outdoors during allergy season when pollens are highest, such as when mowing the lawn.”

Medication

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are the most common allergy medication. They’re designed to block your body’s histamine release, relieving allergy symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, rashes and hives.

Nasal corticosteroids

Nasal corticosteroid sprays help reduce inflammation to make breathing through your nose easier. These sprays may take several days to start working, so some people take them in combination with antihistamines.

Saline sprays

Nasal saline sprays can temporarily relieve irritation and congestion. They may also help flush out pollen or other allergens.

Nasal decongestants

Nasal decongestants can help clear severe congestion, but follow the instructions carefully. Using nasal decongestants for more than the recommended amount of time can worsen your symptoms.

Allergy immunotherapy

With allergy immunotherapy, an allergist conducts a series of skin and blood tests to determine what you’re allergic to. From there, they gradually administer increasing amounts of that substance through a series of ‘allergy shots’ to desensitize your immune system. Immunotherapy can take months or longer to show results, but it can resolve existing allergies and even prevent new ones from developing.

Tips for people who are new to the region and experiencing allergies

 

“Moving to North Carolina from other areas is always challenging for allergies,” said Gary. “There’s just something about the NC pollen that gets most people. Starting allergy medication can be very helpful, especially for someone that is new to the NC pollen, as well as the abovementioned ways to avoid seasonal allergy triggers. If people are still struggling with allergies, they can also talk to their primary care provider to see what other options there may be.”

Staying healthy during allergy season and beyond

If you have allergies, your doctor can help you determine the best treatment for your symptoms. This can bring you much-needed relief and support your overall immune system health by preventing chronic inflammation. So, take the first step toward better quality of life and talk to your doctor about your options.

Learn more about primary care, including allergy treatments, at Mission Health.