Allergy is a disorder of the immune system. Allergic reactions occur to environmental substances known as allergens. Mild allergies like hay fever are highly prevalent in the human population and cause symptoms such as allergic conjunctivitis, itchiness, and runny nose. Allergies can play a major role in conditions such as asthma. In some people, severe allergies to environmental or dietary allergens or to medication may result in life threatening anaphylactic reactions.
Many allergens, such as dust or pollen, are airborne particles. In these cases, symptoms arise in areas in contact with air, such as eyes, nose and lungs. For instance, allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, causes irritation of the nose, sneezing and itchy, red eyes. Inhaled allergens can also lead to asthmatic symptoms, caused by narrowing of the airways and an increased production of mucus, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.
Aside from these ambient allergens, allergic reactions can result from foods, insect stings, and reactions to medications. Risk factors for allergies can be placed into two general categories, namely host and environmental factors. Host factors can include heredity, sex, race and age, with heredity being by far the most significant. There have been recent increases of allergic disorders that can not be explained by genetic factors alone. The four main environmental candidates are alterations in exposure to infectious diseases during early childhood, environmental pollution, allergen levels and dietary changes.
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The University of Maryland Medical Center states that antigens are large molecules (usually proteins) on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and some non-living substances such as toxins, chemicals, drugs, and foreign particles. The immune system recognizes antigens and produces antibodies that destroy substances containing antigens.