Who is most susceptible? 10-30% of us suffer from ragweed allergies. Environmental or seasonal allergies do have a genetic link – parents with allergies are likely to have children who suffer from allergies. Their symptoms may be worse, but they won’t necessarily be sensitive to the same allergens. Furthermore, young children are at most risk because IgE levels are usually the highest in children and declines into early adulthood.
A little technical information: What happens in my body when I’m exposed to an allergen? In a simplified explanation, the pollen of ragweed, an antigen, is introduced into the body and presented to a cell called the TH2 lymphocyte. This TH2 cell interacts with a lymphocyte called a B cell which produces IgE antibodies. These little IgE antibodies swim around in your blood and try to find a comfortable spot to settle, usually on the surface of mast cells and basophils (a white blood cell). This process is called sensitization. No inflammation has occurred yet, but the next time you are exposed to the pollen antigen, watch out! Upon the second exposure to ragweed, multiple antigens bind to the IgE receptors, which activate the mast cells and basophils. A process called degranulation is started, where histamine and other inflammatory mediators are released into the surrounding tissue and cause the classic symptoms of ragweed allergies – sneezing, a runny nose, red itchy eyes, nasal congestion, itchy throat and potentially hives and asthma attacks.
But it seems that allergies are on the rise in modern industrialized populations. Allergies are largely thought to be an inappropriate response mediated by TH2 cells. In developing countries, and many years ago in developed countries, our bodies were used to fighting off bacteria and viruses more often, which is a TH1 response. If a body is actively responding to a TH1 response, it will actually down-regulate the TH2 response meaning less allergic reactions were given the chance to develop. But in our world, with an overuse of hand sanitizer, antibacterial cleaning products, plenty of antibiotics, and the taboo of wanting to get sick, our environments are too sterile and we aren’t being exposed to pathogens to keep our immune system occupied. We simply aren’t stimulating our body into TH1 responses and the body has no other choice than to have an overactive TH2 system in place. This concept is what immunologist and epidemiologists call the Hygiene Hypothesis. That’s why it is important to let your kids play outside, explore their surroundings, get dirty and get sick too! You’re helping out their immune system.
5 Tips to reduce ragweed pollen exposure:
- Try staying indoors when the pollen count is at its peak outside
- Take a shower before bed to wash off pollen residue from your face, skin and hair
- Change your clothes after being outside for long periods of time
- Don’t let your clothes dry on the line outside where it can pick up pollen – a dryer is best
- Try performing nasal irrigation with a neti-pot to remove allergens trapped in the nose and sinuses.