Updated: Aug 21, 2019
“Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm”- Hippocrates
Allergy or hay fever is the inflammatory reaction of the respiratory system to an allergen. All allergic attacks initially begin as acute episodes of runny nose, watery eyes, itching etc. occurring periodically to one or more allergens. Here, I am excluding anaphylactic (severe) reactions to nuts, eggs etc. which are potentially life threatening. When this condition progresses and becomes more sustained, it’s called as asthma. Many of the inflammatory substances that mediate this reaction are common to both asthma and hay fever and hence, in many cases, the treatment also is similar. The NIH has stated that asthma especially cannot be cured and only controlled.1
The general treatment always includes avoidance of the allergen, a quick shot of anti-histamine to prevent the attack from sustaining, a substance that helps dilate the airway during an attack and a long term steroid and anti-inflammatory drugs to prevent further attacks.1 Overall, the treatment looks convincing. Now, let’s break this down to its components.
Avoiding allergens is easy when they are few and known. But potentially we are exposed to thousands of allergens each day. Imagine if a person has to avoid all those. Terrible I’d say. Also, it is extremely easy for an allergic tendency to shift from one allergen to many in a short span of time.2
Next let’s see how the antihistamines work. Histamine is the chemical that acts as a catalyst in hay fever and asthma. Uncontrolled immune response of the respiratory system causes immune cells to attack allergens (pollens, smelling agents) thereby releasing histamine. Histamine causes dilatation of blood vessels which increases fluid content in the tissues causing various symptoms ranging from runny nose to breathlessness. Antihistamines are the life saviours that stop these symptoms from happening. But, do they prevent immune cells from attacking the allergens? Absolutely not! In fact, the immune cells are still attacking the allergens, except that you don’t realise it. The anti-histamine stops the action of released histamine on the surrounding tissues. So, while your immune system is still overzealously active and destroying allergens, you are largely unaware of this.
Bronchodilators like theophylline help dilating the airways, especially during a severe acute attack and help prevent the attack from being life-threatening. But again, similar to the anti-histamine, they do not alter the immune cells in anyway.
Once we have understood that antihistamines or bronchodilators do not alter immune cells, we can proceed to the next step of the process. The long-term treatment is steroid inhalation. Steroids have a suppressive effect on the immune system. They reduce the production of antibodies (immunoglobulin) and also reduce the fighting power of immune cells. Unfortunately, steroids are not target specific. While they definitely alter the immune response to allergens, they also suppress the immune system in general thereby leaving to more vulnerable to a host of other illnesses. Again, not a good bargain. Is it?
Hay fever or Asthma is an exaggerated response of the immune cells to certain allergens
Antihistamine or bronchodilators do not alter immune cells, but reduce the effect of histamine of the tissues
Steroids decrease the immune response directly but also suppress the overall immunity of the person.
Basically, none of the treatment protocols mentioned above “reverse” the tendency of the immune system to react in an exaggerated fashion
So, what provides a good chance of getting hay fever/ asthma reversed?
Understanding that altered immune system is attributed a lot to lifestyle and diet.
Smoking, alcohol, trans-fatty acids etc. increase free radicals which keep the immune system constantly at work. Altered sleep habits, sedentary work and reduced exercise also contribute to disruption of the normal immune system.
Stress management: Stress is an important factor which alters immune system. It can not only suppress it but also alter its actions.
Natural treatment (ayurvedic, herbal medicine etc) can limit the symptoms of an acute episode. Ayurvedic medicine looks at a person’s body type and tailors the treatment accordingly.
Homeopathy treatment can also reverse the tendency to allergies. Since homeopathic treatment is individualized, it touches the root cause of the deranged immune system of each individual. The prognosis and duration definitely depends on at what stage the therapy is taken. The earlier homeopathic treatment is instituted, the better are the chances of full recovery.
L. Do allergies change over time? New Scientist (2015); 226(3016): 32-33