What causes allergies? (Continued)
In the pet cat example, the dad and the youngest daughter developed IgE antibodies in large amounts that were targeted against the cat allergen. The dad and daughter are now sensitized, or prone to develop allergic reactions, on repeated exposures to cat allergen. Typically, there is a period of sensitization ranging from days to years prior to an allergic response. Although it might occasionally appear that an allergic reaction has occurred on the first exposure to the allergen, there needs to be prior exposure in order for the immune system to react. It is important to realize that it is impossible to be allergic to something that an individual has truly never been exposed to before, though the first exposure may be subtle or unknown. The first exposure can even occur in a baby in the womb, through breast milk, or through the skin.
IgE is an antibody that all of us have in small amounts. Allergic individuals, however, generally produce IgE in larger quantities. Historically, this antibody was important in protecting us from parasites. In the example above, during a sensitization period, cat dander IgE is overproduced and coats other cells involved in the allergic response, such as mast cells and basophils, which contain various chemical messengers, such as histamine. These cells produce chemical messengers that cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction on subsequent exposures to the cat allergen. The cat protein is recognized by the IgE, leading to activation of the cells, which leads to the release of the allergic mediators mentioned above. These chemicals cause typical allergic symptoms, such as localized swelling, inflammation, itching, and mucus production. Once primed, or sensitized, the immune system is capable of mounting this exaggerated response with subsequent exposures to the allergen.
On exposure to cat dander, whereas the dad and daughter produce IgE, the mom and the other two children produce other classes of antibodies, which do not cause allergic reactions. In these nonallergic members of the family, the cat protein is eliminated uneventfully by the immune system and the cat has no effect on them.
Another part of the immune system, the T-cell, may be involved in allergic responses in the skin, as occurs from the oils of plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, reactions to metal, such as nickel, or certain chemicals. The T-cell may recognize a certain allergen in a substance contacting the skin and cause an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response can cause an itchy rash.