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The science of allergies

While most people in central and northern New York welcome spring and summer, this time of year can be miserable for allergy sufferers. But many people who sniffle and sneeze through the seasons don't know much about the science of allergies.

Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show Take Care, spoke with Syracuse-area Dr. Juan Sotomayor, an expert in allergies, asthma, and immunology to find out more.

Lorraine Rapp: Can you explain, what physically happens when somebody has an allergic reaction to pollen or to another allergen?

Dr. Sotomayor: So these are microscopic particles that are not visible to the naked eye and they have to be small enough and aerodynamically suited to penetrate the mucus membranes of your body -- meaning typically the eyes and the nose, and in more significant cases they have to go down and penetrate into the airwaves. What happens is these microscopic particles come in contact with the factories that are called mast cells. Mast cells are cells that contain histamines. Now, when you have an allergy there's this antibody called an IGE antibody that sits on top of these mast cells. When they get cross-linked at the surface with these IGE antibodies you get a rapid release of histamine. And within seconds or minutes you get a rapid response of all the chemical reactions that occur with histamines, which are runny nose, sneezing, stuffiness, congestion, and you get rapid stuffiness in your nose, your eyes start to water. And all these effects are from histamine.

Linda Lowen: Is this sort of like a yes/no, on/off switch, or are there degrees of reactions to histamines?

Dr. Sotomayor: Everyone to a certain extent will react to a certain level of pollens, molds, or dusts. The people who have this predisposition to allergies are going to be sensitive to lower amounts. Now that sensitivity can vary and the reactions can vary. And that's genetically determined. It's also how much your own body has become resistant, because eventually you become resistant to these things as you get older. Allergies are one of the most interesting disease processes in that as you get older you probably get better. You auto-immunize yourself as you get older.

Linda Lowen: How would someone ascertain or not, "oh, I'm forming a new allergy, I seem to have these sniffles or these watery eyes."

Dr. Sotomayor: How do you differentiate an allergy from a simple cold or sinus infection? Even in the best of hands you always can't. Typically if other family members are sick and you have muscle aches or signs of flu, it wouldn't be an allergy. Now you can have overlap of all these symptoms, except fever. You wouldn't get a fever with allergies. The next step would be that you have to consider some form of testing, which in our hands would either be scratch testing or what you'd call prick testing, intradermal testing or even blood testing, which is getting better as well.

Lorraine Rapp: If somebody finds that they're suffering and it's not too bad, do you recommend that they come in and see a medical professional? Or might they try an over-the-counter medication and if that seems to do the trick then they're fine maintaining that?

Dr. Sotomayor: The simple answer to that is if your quality of life is not severely affected day to day, then trying over-the-counter medication, especially the ones that used to be prescription and are now fairly safe and non-sedating, are definitely where you would start. If your quality of life is being affected, you're getting poor sleep , you're irritable, you're missing days at work, you're starting getting chronic sinus[itis], you're getting asthma, you have eczema, you start to get food allergies, then I think referring... you should see a health professional.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.