Have you ever started wheezing after spending too much time outdoors especially in traffic? Or suddenly sneezed when breathing in the fumes released by a factory? Or felt your tongue swell up after eating prawns? Or got a red angry rash on your skin for no apparent reason? Do you often suffer from headaches, nausea, or fatigue? If your answer is yes to any one or more of these questions, then you may be suffering from an allergy.
The word ‘allergy’ comes from two Greek words, which mean ‘altered reaction’. In case of a living organism’s body, it is the hypersensitivity of the immune system to allergens (allergy causing substances). And this makes our immune system attack the body itself! Allergies can be of various types – inhalant, food, chemical, skin, and multiple – and their symptoms can vary from a mild rash to an asthma attack. Some reactions can even lead to death. So are we incapable of taking in these aliens? No, we are not.
Nature has given many weapons to our bodies against the invasion of unwanted alien substances. These include our nose hair, earwax, skin, and mucous. But the most important among these is our immune system, which produces white blood cells (WBC) to fight infection and diseases. But, the enemy is getting stronger day by day. The increasing number of irritants present in the environment is slowly overpowering our bodies’ natural defences.
Allergies have existed from time immemorial. However, they were never as widespread or severe as they are today. Normally, natural allergens like pollen cause seasonal allergies, which run their course and die out. But according to most doctors, allergies are no more seasonal. They have become perennial. And this is due to the influence of ‘unnatural’ allergens – like fumes of diesel exhausts, volatile organic solvents (VOC), pesticides, and tobacco smoke.
These health hazards are ever present around us, and we are completely unaware of their threat. Rapid industrialisation and an increased dependence on products with high chemical content have wrecked havoc on our environment and in turn, our bodies. Contamination of food and water with pesticides and fertilisers, addiction to processed food items and additives, dust, smog, and constant exposure to VOCs from regularly used substances like plastics, adhesives and paints are all harming our bodies. And our defence systems cannot keep pace with these rapid changes in the environment.
Moreover, it is a vicious cycle. Increase in allergies means reduced efficiency of the immune system, which in turn means that the body becomes more susceptible to diseases. And you cannot even choose to lock yourself out from these villains because allergens are present everywhere – even indoors. Thus, a constant battle is raging between our immune system and the changing environment. The latter seems to be outstripping the immune system’s ability to adapt and deal with the situation. But, do we really understand the importance of treating allergies in India?
Allergies are rampant mainly in urban and semi-urban regions. However, the increase in allergy attacks is noticeable everywhere, especially in areas where unnaturally high numbers of chemicals are used or released. In spite of this, there is a major lack of information and statistics in India. But if allergies are not handled properly, they can lead to a serious reduction in quality of health and life of the people.
Time to Act
So, we need to be very careful and keep track of what we are allergic to. The time to act is now.
We should avoid the use of harmful pesticides and fertilisers, chemical additives in food, use of diesel in vehicles, and smoking in public areas also fall in this danger zone. In a nutshell, we must deter the degradation of our environment and work towards cleaning it up.
The Sick Building Syndrome is a phenomenon where exposure to high levels of VOCs allows them to get dissolved in the fatty tissues of the body (especially the brain). This results in mental, physical, and emotional disorders. VOCs further destroy the lining of the nose and respiratory tract, thus increasing susceptibility to inhalant allergies.
So how does it happen? Here’s an example to explain the process.
Allergic asthma reaction after diesel smoke exposure
First the particulate matter from the smoke enters the respiratory tract and attaches itself to the mucous membranes.
The body recognises the allergen as a foreign invader and decides to fight.
The T-cells signal the B-cells (both part of the immune system) to stimulate the production of an antibody – Immunoglobulin E (IgE).
The antibodies attach themselves to a type of cell called mast cells.
IgE provokes the release of chemical mediators like histamine, prostaglandins, and leukotrienes from the mast cells.
These mediators cause inflammation and constrict the bronchial passages of the lungs.
This causes an asthma attack.