What causes allergies?

What’s the current thinking on the underlying sources of allergies? In other words, why do some people have them & some don’t? Is it genetic, environmental, or some unknown combination of the two?

In the mid-1980’s, I was taught (in an advanced level Biology course focusing on cell physiology) that the body has “memory cells” in the blood, IIRC, which react to the presence of various foreign proteins introduced into the body. The receptors on these cells, like the notches of a puzzle piece, join with these foreign proteins (such as from plant or mold spores) causing (a) an imbalance within the body since (b) the body’s proper proteins, mostlikely the plasma proteins IIRC, are now inhibted from filling these “jigsaw puzzle” receptors correctly. Such an imbalance of plasma proteins, again IIRC, will triggers cells to release histamines which in turn trigger the watery flow from our muscus membranes…of which anti-histamines help to combat…in a nutshell.

Now, this all made sense to me long-before I ever heard of a latex allergy! Is latex a protein? Not to the best of my knowledge, but perhaps its chemical shape and other characteristics are similar enough to cause them to latch onto these memory cells and have the same allergic reaction.

Last, I should mention these cells are called “memory cells” because they act as if they remember how to respond to the next protein attack (when it matches a previous protein attack) and they react faster and faster with each subsequent attack. For example, if allergic to bees, consecutive bee stings will trigger the body to react faster and more severe than the previous incident.

Hope this helps…

  • Jinx

That’s helpful, but I was more looking for the root cause of it. Why is it, for example, that I can eat a handful of peanuts with no problems, but a friend of mine from college had to carry around an Epi-Pen around with her in case she ate something containing trace amounts of peanuts? What causes the difference in our respective biochemistries?

Not to sound like some tinfoil hat type, but I would venture that the reason we don’t really have a handle on allergies or sinus infections, cold & flu, etc., is that the (largely ineffective) over the counter “medicines” sold to relieve the symptoms of those ailments make up an enormous part of pharmaceutical companies business.

Nope, didn’t work. You still sound like a tinfoil hat type. :wink: There are many effective treatments for allergies, the current crop is much better than what was available in previous years. It’s just a hard problem to solve.

Ok I know anecdotal evidence is frowned upon in GQ, but it’s all I have.

Some allergies are genetic. And some are due to environment.

My allergies didn’t kick in until my late teens. And the predominant change in my lifestyle was that i had gone from as much time outdoors as possible to a lot of time indoors. Suddenly I was allergic to things like dust mites, pollen, rag weed. In current years, I still notice that the more time I spend outdoors the less problem I have with my allergies. Kind of like a resistance I’m thinking.

On the other hand, I have the shellfish* allergy. This triggered the first time I ate a piece of shrimp. So maybe this is genetic…?

I love shellfish, and the allergy is very mild. You can pry my all-you-can-eat crab legs from my cold dead hands.

I believe some are also age related, as many people I know have become more allergic to things in their 30’s, especially pollen.

IIRC, it would have to be the second time you ate shrimp, as you cannot have an allergic reaction to something until you first generate the antibodies(?). Clearly, I’m not a doctor so unless you are allergic to salt, take it with several grains.

As far as I understand it, you are correct—a person can only be allergic to a polypeptide. Here’s a good explanation of latex allergy:

But what I’ve never understood is this: the popular media is fond of saying that an allergy is the result of a genetic defect of the immune system. On the surface of it, this seems to make sense. After all, if your immune system goes berserk every time it sees a peanut, then I would certainly agree that this could be generally categorized as a defect. But how did the polypeptide get into the bloodstream in the first place? Why wasn’t it broken down into its constituent amino acids before it passed into the bloodstream? It seems to me that an allergy is really a genetic defect of the gastrointestinal system, not the immune system.

Er, that last sentence is poorly worded. I should have emphasized that I was talking about food allergies. A bee sting, for example, is a completely different story.

Not enough worms. Who wants sushi?

This is a fairly layman-friendly site that explains the whys and wherefores of allergies.

Allergies are caused by an immune response from an antibody type called IgE. Scientists believe that IgE originally evolved to help fight parasitic infections. Other types of antibodies include IgG, IgD, IgA, and IgM. Genetic variation in the types of immune response that people mount to various triggers is the simple reason why some people are more prone to allergies. Why is the allergic IgE pathway activated versus an IgG antibody response or none at all? It is probaby a combination of how the immune system develops (environment + random chance) with a person’s genetic profile.

It could have been the second time. What I meant to say was I hadn’t eaten any shellfish all my life until I was an adult, so my body didn’t like it from the getgo.

And I will try the salt thing. As for a doctor…none of my allergies are severe enough for a doctor. They all want me to take pills and I refuse.