About Allergies & Immunology

h-patientAllergy and Immunology is the medical specialty that focuses on issues concerning the immune system –the body’s defense system against foreign microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses that cause diseases. A healthy immune system will directly “attack” the foreign microorganism or will produce antibodies (proteins) to attack the microorganism. When the immune system has an abnormal reaction to a substance, it produces allergic antibodies, resulting in allergies and asthma. When the immune system malfunctions, it produces antibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue in the body, resulting in autoimmune disorders. A weakness or deficiency in the immune system causes immunodeficiency disorders.

Allergies

Allergies affect one out of four people in the United States and are the fifth leading chronic disease among all ages. Allergies can affect anyone of any age or gender. Some risk factors for allergies include heredity, hormones, smoke, fragrances, or other environmental irritants.

With allergies, the immune system overreacts and responds to external factors (allergens), such as pollen, dust, food, etc. This overreaction causes a wide range of symptoms, including coughing, sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, and a runny nose. In some cases, it can also cause hives, rashes and difficulty breathing. When severe, it can even lead to death.

Common allergies include:

  • Food Allergies – Foods that most often trigger an allergic reaction include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish and shellfish.
  • Environmental Allergies – This type of allergy includes airborne substances, such as pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, dust mite allergen, mold, and animal dander.
  • Stinging Insect Allergies – This allergy is due to the venom in bee stings, fire ant bites, and wasp and yellow jacket hornet stings.
  • Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis – This type of allergy, also known as hay fever, is caused by nasal irritation and inflammation due to the seasonal exposure to the pollen from trees, grasses, ragweed, as well as mold spores.
  • Skin Allergies – The skin can display signs of an allergic response to ingested foods or medications. It can also show reactions to contact allergens.

Asthma

Asthma is considered a chronic lung disease. During an asthma attack, the lining of the airways becomes swollen and inflamed from muscle spasms and excess mucus that limit the airflow to and from the lungs. This common disease affects an estimated 16 million Americans, including children.

Common symptoms for asthma include difficulty breathing, a tight feeling in the chest, coughing and wheezing. Factors that can cause an asthma attack include contact with allergens (pollens, dust or animals), contact with smoke or strong smells, exercise and viral infections.

Skin Disorders

Skin disorders, such as contact dermatitis and eczema, are caused when the body’s immune system has an abnormal response to external factors.

  • Contact Dermatitis – Skin rash as a result of coming in contact with jewelry, poison ivy, neomycin, detergents, cleaning products, cosmetics, hair dye, etc.
  • Eczema – Symptoms of eczema include dry, itchy and scaly skin with a rash. Eczema can be worsened by allergies, skin infection and stress.

Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune disorders affect 50 million Americans, making it the third most common disease in the United States, after cancer and heart disease. And, while it can affect any age or gender, eight women out of 10 people are likely to have an autoimmune disorder.

An autoimmune disorder is caused when the immune system attacks and destroys the body’s healthy tissue by producing antibodies against the body’s tissue. This is called autoimmunity. With an autoimmune disease, the body is responding to itself instead of external substances.

There are two types of autoimmune disorders – systemic, in which the disorder damages more than one organ and localized, where only a single tissue or organ is damaged. The most prevalent of these disorders include:

Systemic

  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Guillian-Barre Syndrome

Most of these conditions are managed by our colleagues specializing in Rheumatology.

Localized

  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Hashimoto's Thyroiditis
  • Celiac Disease

These conditions are usually managed by endocrinology specialists.

Immunodeficiency Disorders

Immunodeficiency disorders occur when there is a defect in the normal immune system, such as when specialized white blood cells do not work as they should or when the body does not produce enough antibodies. Because a normal immune system protects us from infections, patients with immunodeficiency disorders tend to have recurrent infections or unusual complications of infections. The usual causes include bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasites, and fungal organisms.

There are two types of immunodeficiency disorders: congenital (primary) which are hereditary and present at birth, and acquired (secondary) which develop later in life and can be the result of HIV1, aging, malnutrition and use of certain drugs (such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other immunosuppressive drugs). These disorders include:

Congenital

  • DiGeorge Syndrome
  • Primary Immunodeficiency Disease
  • Common Variable Immunodeficiency
  • Agammaglobulinemia, Brutons, X-Linked
  • Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome

Acquired

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome from HIV