The Allergic Response
Allergic symptoms typically include inflammation. In the case of allergic rhinitis, that can mean itchiness (in the eyes and nose and possibly the skin in other parts of your body), sneezing, and a runny nose. If the airways are irritated, symptoms can also include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. In skin reactions, you might develop red patches, hives, or a rash.
An allergic response is a misguided reaction of your immune system to something that doesn't present a threat (and doesn't bother other people, unless they happen to be allergic to the same thing).
Many people treat the sniffles caused by nasal allergies with nonprescription decongestant nasal sprays. But overuse of these sprays can make things worse, creating a chronic condition known as nonallergic rhinitis. That happens when the tissues in your nasal passages become conditioned to the chemicals in the spray, causing you to use more and more to get the same results.
Allergies are caused by a complex process that can be traced back to an antibody called immunoglobulin E, or IgE, which the body releases in response to a trigger (a substance to which it's been exposed before and is now sensitized). In the bloodstream, IgE antibodies bind to mast cells, which are located in the tissues that line the nose, bronchial tubes, gastrointestinal tract, and skin. This triggers the release of chemicals called mediators (including histamine and leukotrienes) and sets off a chain reaction that produces the classic “allergic” reaction. IgEs are the key to allergies. If your immune system produces IgEs whenever it encounters cats (or more precisely, proteins from the cat's skin), you'll be allergic to cats.
Most experts think that both environment and genetics play a role in who'll develop allergic conditions. Allergies run in families, and research shows that people with allergies are more likely to develop asthma. Allergies are also closely tied to dermatitis, and people with allergic asthma and certain allergies — or who have family members with allergic conditions — are more likely to develop dermatitis.
Conventional Versus Herbal Treatments
Conventional medicine tackles allergic conditions in two ways: by individually treating symptoms of an acute allergy (or asthma) attack and attempting to prevent or minimize future attacks. These treatments focus almost entirely on symptom management — shutting down the body's reactions to triggers by suppressing the individual functions. For example, nasal allergy sufferers are given antihistamines to avert the sniffling-and-sneezing symptoms of an allergic reaction. Asthmatics are given steroid medications that reduce inflammation in the airways.
Although they have their drawbacks, the conventional drugs that are used to treat these conditions are valuable in many cases — and essential in serious ones. However, herbs can be used quite effectively, alone or as a support for conventional medications. For example, herbal remedies can be used safely to relieve congestion in the upper and lower respiratory tracts, relax spasms, and soothe inflamed tissues in the airways. Herbal remedies also work to support the body's immunity and other functions.