Living With Allergies

Every Question You Have About Allergies and Your Immune System, Answered

Image of a person standing outside reading on their phone.
Photo by Hannah Busing via Unsplash

When you’re dealing with severe allergy symptoms, there are plenty of potential culprits for you to point the finger at. Ragweed. Your roommate’s cat. Dust mites.

But, there’s one more thing that might need to shoulder at least some of the blame: your own immune system.

That’s right—when it comes to your stuffy nose and scratchy eyes, there’s a big link between allergies and immune systems. Here’s what you need to know.

First things first, what is an immune system?

The immune system has a big job and is pretty complex. But, let’s stick with a basic understanding of what it does.

The simplest way to think of your immune system is as your body’s protector. As the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases explains, your immune system exists to prevent or, at the very least, limit infection.

How does it get that job done? It figures out which cells in your body are normal and healthy and which ones are unhealthy or potentially dangerous. If the sirens start going off and your immune system picks up on some unwelcome proteins (in this case, known as antigens), it kicks into action with something called an immune response and tries to destroy the antigen by producing antibodies.

How does my immune system affect my allergies?

So, your immune system is there to fight off the nasty stuff. But, here’s the tricky part: Your immune system is also the cause of your allergies.

Wait... what? Does that mean your immune system isn’t doing its job?

On the contrary, actually. Your immune system is working too well. When it detects one of your allergy triggers (whether that’s pollen, pet dander, or something else), your immune system responds and attempts to fight off that allergen by pumping out histamine. Histamine is an inflammatory chemical that causes your blood vessels to expand and your skin to puff up.

However, your immune system can be a tad bit dramatic—which means it’s overreacting to an otherwise harmless substance (like Fido’s fur) with the sniffly, sneezy, scratchy reaction you’ve come to know and detest.

Can I build immunity to allergies?

Well, sort of. There are absolutely things you can do to figure out how to treat severe allergies and reduce your allergic rhinitis symptoms (that’s a fancy name for allergies, by the way).

But, the “building immunity” question is sort of a murky one when it comes to allergies. The U.S. National LIbrary of Medicine explains that there is something called “acquired immunity,” which happens when there’s repeated exposure to an antigen. That’s essentially how allergy shots work—by slowly exposing your body to an allergen.

Dr. Amina Abdeldaim, allergist and Picnic Medical Director, adds, “It is possible to teach your immune system to tolerate the antigens they consider enemies. This is done by exposure to the allergen in increasing doses and strengths until your body is so used to seeing it that it won’t overreact."

Even so, there’s confusion about whether or not repeated exposure to a trigger is a good idea for your allergy symptoms. One study looked at children who are allergic to eggs and found that they actually were able to build tolerance after frequent and increased exposure to eggs over one or two years.

Does this mean you should be spending extended amounts of time around a known allergy trigger in an effort to “train” your own immune system or build up a supposed immune system tolerance? Not exactly.

In fact, exposing yourself to your known allergens over and over again can backfire. A separate study found that continued allergen exposure can actually increase the risk of asthma and allergic diseases.

So, in short, pushing your immune system to the limits in an effort to manage your allergies isn’t a smart idea—unless you work with a trained allergist or healthcare professional who’s qualified to guide you.

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How can I strengthen my immune system against allergies?

If you’re eager to get some relief from your severe seasonal allergies, it’s not actually about strengthening your immune system. Rather, what you’re trying to do is manage and reduce your body’s response to your allergy triggers.

The good news is there are a number of ways you can prepare for allergy season and keep your symptoms at bay:

  • Antihistamines: These are medications that block the effects of histamine in your body. Antihistamines are most effective when you start taking them well before your typical allergy season or before you’re going to be around a known trigger.
  • Allergy shots: This is where the “acquired immunity” comes into play. Allergy shots work by gradually exposing your immune system to an allergen. They need to be administered by an allergist or health professional, so they’re not the same as you simply being around an allergen in an attempt to self-treat.
  • Eye drops and nasal sprays: If you’re already struggling with some symptoms, allergy eye drops and nasal sprays can deliver medicine right to the problem areas and give you some much-needed relief.

While there’s no guarantee that you’ll turn your immune system into an impenetrable suit of armor, these will at least help you minimize and manage your symptoms.

Your immune system is (too) good at its job

When it comes to your allergies, your immune system is just doing its job. Unfortunately, its overly-ambitious reaction is actually what’s causing your sniffling and sneezing misery.

Your immune system isn’t like a muscle—it’s not necessarily something you can “work out” and strengthen on your own. However, there are smart steps you can take to make sure that your immune system stays on your good side and doesn’t worsen your allergy symptoms.

ARTICLE REVIEWED BY
Amina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPH
Picnic Medical Director
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