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Millions of Britons know that allergies are nothing to sneeze at. Runny noses, sneezing, congestion and itchy-eyes are unpleasant at best, and some allergic reactions can be fatal. But recent headway in immunology may relieve sufferers' symptoms.

The term "hay fever" is a misnomer, since hay does not cause the problem, nor does it result in fever. Instead, hay fever is usually an allergic response to airborne pollen and mould spores; other allergens include house mites, animal dander, foods, feathers, cosmetics and certain medicines. Allergens may be inhaled, swallowed, rubbed on your skin or injected. Poison ivy is a common allergen that can cause intensely itchy or painful skin eruptions. Some people are allergic to penicillin or bee stings, both of which are occasionally fatal.

An allergic reaction is a complex immune response to substances in your body. Although a healthy immune system is crucial for fighting infections and viruses, an allergy is actually the result of a hypersensitivity of your immune system to a harmless substance.

An antibody known as immunoglobulin E, or IgE, produced primarily in the lymph nodes and the mucous membranes of your nose and respiratory tract, attaches itself to allergens and to immune defence cells called mast cells. Researchers have observed that when the attachments are complete, these mast cells seem to explode literally, releasing histamine and other substances into the blood, causing tiny blood vessels to relax and exude fluids, resulting in irritation in your eyes and nose. Histamine can also make breathing uncomfortable by causing your mucous glands to exude a thin mucus and by constricting your air passages.

Treatment for allergies has traditionally been to administer medicines that suppress or minimize the symptoms, such as antihistamines, which blunt the effect of the histamine released by the mast cells. Many of these drugs, however, have side effects such as drowsiness and mental dullness. Another way to combat allergies is to administer progressively increasing doses of an allergen in a series of injections to desensitize the patient. Many people with allergies simply opt to suffer.

Researchers believe that new drugs may soon effectively inhibit allergic responses. Immunologists have identified the structure of complex proteins that act as receptors on the surfaces of mast cells. These receptors are the attachment points for the allergen-carrying immunoglobulin E. Now researchers feel confident that drugs can be developed to block them, thus preventing the mast cells from releasing histamines.

The first step in preventing an allergic reaction is to find out what causes it. You may be able to determine this by noticing whether your symptoms occur in relation to a specific allergen. If you are unable to pinpoint the cause, however, consult your doctor. Besides determining the source of your allergy, he may also be able to prescribe drugs that will stop the production of histamines.

Once you identify the allergen that bothers you, how do you avoid it ? If the problem is a cosmetic, feather pillow, household pet or food, then the solution may be fairly simple. Microscopic house dust mites and pollen are more problematic.

The highest concentrations of house dust mites are found in bedding -- as many as 4,000 per gram of surface dust from your mattress. You can reduce the population by making your house, and especially bedroom, a less congenial habitat for the mites. Choose a wood-frame bed, cover your mattress -- preferably a new one -- with a washable plastic cover, sleep only under cotton or synthetic sheets, blankets or duvet. Vacuum the mattress and change the bedding at least once a week. Fit blinds or light curtains and replace carpeting with vinyl flooring or sealed boards. Cuddly toys and rugs must be machine washable.

If you are allergic to pollen, keep your windows closed during hay fever season and use an air conditioner, if you have one, to filter out as much pollen as possible. Drive with car windows closed. Do not dry sheets and clothing outside.

Many radio and television stations broadcast daily pollen counts during peak seasons, but these are of little practical value, sine they are usually made the previous day from different locations, and may not be related to your symptoms.

Pollen is likely to be worse in rural and suburban areas than in cities. Rain, however can be a mixed blessing : a rainstorm will clear the air of pollen, but if rain is followed by several days of warm, windy weather, the pollen count will most probably be higher than ever, and your symptoms will return.


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