The science behind seasonal allergies

(Courtesy of Riddhi Jani)

Seasonal allergies are by no means newly occurring issues. A survey commissioned by pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson suggests as many as 10 million Canadians may suffer from allergy symptoms and that more women than men admit to symptoms, reported CBC News.

In fact, more than 25 per cent of Canadians claim to limit their outdoor time to prevent the onset of symptoms. 

North York-based allergist and immunologist Dr. Milos Krajny says, “Allergies are about 50 per cent genetic and they are on the rise,” noting that “ragweed, grass, tree pollen, and dust mites are the most common seasonal allergies.”

“Allergies are annoying every year, but during the pandemic it feels even worse,” says second-year business administration student Miguel Santos. 

Common symptoms of seasonal allergies such as sneezing, runny nose, respiratory issues, and rashes are also all noted as COVID-19 symptoms. 

“I hate the attention that’s drawn from sneezing or coughing in public due to how scared everyone is nowadays,” adds Santos. “It’s understandable considering everything we have witnessed with COVID-19, but all the triggers like ragweed and pollen certainly don’t make it any easier.”

In fact, Dr. Krajny says that some people might not realize they are suffering from allergy symptoms and often think they have a lingering cold. However, he explains that if someone experiences symptoms the same time every year, then they are likely allergic, which can help distinguish between potential COVID-19 symptoms and their allergies.

However, with the multiple lockdowns issued this past year, doctors and mental health experts agree that getting outside is more important now than ever.

Outdoor Play Canada reports that there are several benefits of going outside such as being more physically active (which can improve the efficacy of vaccines), reducing screen time, and improving sleep. Above all, they report that being outdoors increases the immune system’s ability to fight COVID-19 and any other challenges to our health. 

Regardless of the benefits, seasonal allergy sufferers in Ontario may find it harder than usual to get outside as pollen allergies in Canada, particularly in Ontario, have worsened in 2021, according to a Global News report. 

“The pollen count was very high this year,” explains Dr. Krajny, “allergy season was severe, as spring was prolonged, due to the fluctuating cold and warm days.

“Spring pollen season lasted about six weeks, instead of the usual two to three weeks,” while such an event happens every four to seven years. 

Dr. Krajny says there is no real prevention of seasonal allergies, unless people stay indoors all day in a room with air conditioning — which is impractical for most. However, there is treatment available such as taking allergy medication, and for more severe cases, antihistamines or desensitization through allergy injections. 

If one requires allergy shots, Dr. Krajny suggests that they are taken for at least two to three years, after which time the symptoms will be significantly improved and/or eradicated. 

Dr. Krajny further explains that untreated allergies can sometimes develop into asthma, after seasonal rhinitis commonly known as hay fever.

Let’s take a look at what goes on in the body when it comes to seasonal allergies. 

“Seasonal allergies occur in people with a hyperactive immune system, which develops allergic antibodies called reagins to substances that do not cause any reactions in people without allergies,” says Dr. Krajny.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, such antibodies “attack” the allergen, causing common allergic reactions such as hay fever, certain types of asthma, and hives, which are linked to an antibody produced by the body called immunoglobulin E (IgE). 

Each IgE antibody can be specific, reacting against certain allergens such as various kinds of pollen, which explains why people with seasonal allergies are not necessarily allergic to all types of pollen. 

John Hopkins Medicine further stated that a susceptible person’s body starts producing a large amount of similar IgE antibodies when they are exposed to an allergen. However, this specific allergen will only cause a reaction at the time of the next exposure. 

In other words, a person’s immune system first needs to build up an antibody to a particular allergen before an allergic reaction can occur when exposed to it.

It’s important to note that two people having seasonal allergies does not imply the same reaction. The severity of symptoms is due to the type and amount of allergen encountered and the manner in which the body’s immune system reacts to that allergen.

As with any medical issue, it is always important to consult your primary care physician when experiencing symptoms affecting your day-to-day life.

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By Brittania Fusca

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