Here’s What Happens to Your Body During Anaphylaxis

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allergies affect more than 50 million Americans every year—and anaphylaxis, the most severe allergic reaction, affects at least 1.6 percent of the general population [PDF]. Here’s the science of what happens to the body during anaphylactic shock.

ALLERGEN EXPOSURE

In a person with allergies, cells sometimes identify foreign but innocuous stimuli as major threats. Why some people are allergic to certain things while others are not is a mystery science hasn't yet solved, but we do know how it happens: through a process called sensitization.

Here’s how it works. When the body encounters a foreign substance, also called an antigen, immune system cells deliver some of substance's molecules to T-helper cells living in the lymph nodes. Those cells also bring along a type of molecule that informs a T-helper cell it’s time to stage an immune response. Known as a costimulatory molecule, it's necessary to activate any type of immune system reaction involving T cells, whether you have allergies or not.

Being exposed to an antigen "primes" a T-helper cell, turning it into a Th2 cell. Primed Th2 cells release proteins called interleukins, which do two things: First, they interact with another type of immune cell called B cells to produce infection-fighting antibodies that bind to mast cells, which contain chemical particles they'll release in the presence of an antigen. Second, the interleukins activate eosinophils, a type of white blood cell that discharges toxic substances to destroy invading cells (and, occasionally, host cells). In this process, the immune system identifies the "threat" and deploys cells prepared to fight it. The immune system's elevated level of awareness of and preparation against the antigen reclassifies the substance as an allergen—a considerably more dangerous threat.

Because an allergy only develops after this process, a person allergic to strawberries, for example, will only experience a reaction the next time they eat something containing strawberries. New allergies can pop up at any point in your life.

An immune system on allergies is a little bit like a brain that can't distinguish a piece of lint from a spider: unable to relax, constantly on guard against every potential threat. After initial exposure, the mast cells activated during the sensitization phase are still equipped with allergen-specific antibodies and remain combat-ready, prepared to respond immediately should a second exposure ever occur. If it does—and it probably will—here’s what you can expect to happen.

ALLERGIC REACTION

If two or more allergen molecules bind to a sensitized mast cell, the mast cell releases inflammatory mediators that produce an allergic reaction. These mediators include substances like histamine and more of the interleukins that, in turn, activate eosinophils, Th2 cells, and basophils (another type of white blood cell). In a non-allergic reaction, mediators produce helpful inflammation that prevents infection and initiates healing—but those same symptoms can be annoying and even dangerous when the immune system attacks an otherwise benign allergen. Mast cells also release leukotrienes, which recruit more immune cells to the area and speed up the reaction. That leads to what Stanford University researcher Tina Sindher calls a “‘chain reaction’ of allergic inflammation.”

With the release of histamine, you might experience both bronchial contraction—which makes it more difficult to breathe—and blood vessel dilation. The latter makes it easier for blood to flow to affected areas, but it also makes blood vessels more permeable, allowing blood to escape from the blood vessel walls and flow into the spaces between cells and causing swelling and hives.

For most, these symptoms are merely uncomfortable; they can occur as late as eight to 12 hours after initial exposure, long after the allergen is gone, and can be alleviated with an antihistamine like Benadryl. But for a person with severe allergies, a life-threatening allergic response can occur within minutes: Their airways will constrict so much they won't be able to breathe, and their blood vessels will be unable to contract, which can lead to a drop in a blood pressure and keep veins from getting blood back to the heart. The combination of airway constriction and blood vessel dilation can make it impossible for the body to supply enough oxygen to major organs—that's anaphylactic shock.

The only way to stop anaphylaxis in its tracks is with epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands to help generate the "fight or flight" response in emergency situations. It works by constricting certain blood vessels, increasing blood pressure, and relaxing airways, counteracting all the reactions produced by histamines.

According to Sindher, it’s important to use epinephrine immediately if you're at risk for anaphylactic shock. “There’s a general belief out there that epinephrine should only be used in the worst-case scenario,” she tells Mental Floss. “In fact, most of the complications we see in food allergic reactions are due to delayed use in Epi. Antihistamines can be helpful in treating the symptoms of itching and congestion, but they do not help stop an allergic reaction.”

THE FUTURE OF ALLERGY TREATMENT

Researchers like Sindher are still trying to understand what causes allergies, and why the prevalence of food allergies has increased over the past few decades. Sindher’s main goal is to find new ways of treating (and hopefully curing) allergies. The most established technique (for food allergies, at least) is oral immunotherapy, where allergic individuals gradually eat more of their allergen until they can have small amounts without experiencing a reaction. That’s usually done extremely gradually, over the course of months or years, and always under the supervision of a certified allergist.

image of two epipens sitting on a desk
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Sindher says scientists are still testing other types of immunotherapy treatments and vaccinations in clinical trials: “A lot of research is going into trying to identify the causes so we can be successful in the prevention as well as treatment of food allergies.”

Until that happens, though, doctors say the best course of action is to be careful around allergens. Medications are useful and necessary, but prevention is the name of the game when it comes to allergies.

Why Does Scratching Make Itching Worse?

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iStock/champja

It feels like a biological blooper: A persistent itch is made worse by scratching, the one thing that provides instantaneous relief. Evolutionary biologists have proposed that the relationship between scratching and itching developed when disease-carrying parasites and insects bit humans, causing itching skin; scratching brushed the bugs away. Anyone suffering from a mosquito bite can understand that connection.

There’s no simple answer for why skin that has just been scratched becomes even itchier, but researchers have identified some mechanisms behind the irritating phenomenon.

Why Scratching an Itch Doesn't Help

Our sensory neurons are constantly bombarded with stimuli, so some sensations take precedence over others. Sensory signals of one type can be overridden by signals of other types if the latter are strong enough. The overridden signals don’t even reach the brain—they’re stopped by specific neurons in the spinal cord. In this way, the pain caused by scratching is often sufficient to drown out the itch—but only temporarily.

Cells in the brain stem produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which quells pain. But according to Zhou-Feng Chen, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, serotonin has an additional function. His group has found that as the serotonin spreads through the spinal cord, it can activate neurons that transmit itch signals to the brain, compelling us to scratch even more.

Each time we scratch, we put this cycle in motion. The increasing amount of serotonin may even make us scratch harder, until the urge to scratch becomes detached from any itch trigger on the skin. “It’s to try to suppress the itchy sensation, which occurs in your brain,” Chen tells Mental Floss. By this mechanism, itches can even become chronic.

Serotonin signaling isn’t the only way scratching worsens an itch; harm to the skin caused by scratching is another contributor. “When the skin barrier is irritated or further damaged, it releases certain pro-inflammatory factors that can directly aggravate itch by stimulating the sensory nerve fibers,” Brian Kim, M.D., co-director of the Center for the Study of Itch, tells Mental Floss. Those factors can also activate your immune system, and some types of immune cells around the affected area may produce chemicals that induce itch.

The very idea of scratching can also be a trigger. Chen’s research group reported last year that mice appear susceptible to scratching when they see other mice do the same. “Itching is actually contagious between people, between animals, and in your body itself,” Chen says. “When you scratch one place, you quickly want to scratch another area.” Scratching doesn’t just make itch more intense—it sometimes also causes the sensation to spread.

Relief for Itching

In mild cases, it may be possible to resist scratching through sheer force of will—but that’s not usually a long-term solution.

“I always feel bad because a lot of people say to patients, ‘Don’t scratch, don’t scratch,’ but that’s very challenging,” Kim tells Mental Floss. He says he tries to determine the cause of a person’s itchiness first. If it’s caused by an underlying medical problem, such as infestation with lice or liver disease, managing that issue may resolve the itch. Even if the underlying problem can’t be cured, there are medications that can calm itch in certain circumstances, such as antihistamines for allergy-induced itch and topical corticosteroids for itch caused by certain skin conditions, including eczema.

For now, drugs like these may be our best weapons against itching. “I think itch is often viewed as quirky, not serious, or embarrassing,” Kim says, which explains why there’s little research on itch despite its impact on our lives. Unfortunately, that coveted scratch in a bottle remains out of reach.

What's the Difference Between Mold and Mildew?

iStock.com/AndreasReh
iStock.com/AndreasReh

We’re all familiar with colorful spots of something growing in our showers and in other dark, damp areas in our homes, but you may not know what to call it. Is it mold, or is it mildew? What is the difference between the two, anyway?

Both terms refer to fungus, but as it happens, it’s a squares-versus-rectangles situation. Mildew is a type of mold. The term typically describes fungi that grows flat, on surfaces like the walls of your shower or window sills. There are also several types of mildew that are specific to plants—powdery mildew and downy mildew are parasites that grow on certain trees, flowers, and crops, for example. While mold might be a colorful green or black, mildew is typically white.

The word mildew originally came from honeydew, a term for sticky secretions aphids and other insects leave on plants, which people used to think came from the sky, like dew. Eventually, the word came to refer to the mold caused by the fungi that fed on these secretions.

Leaves covered in white powder
Powdery mildew on maple leaves
iStock.com/kazakovmaksim

Most of the household growths we refer to as mold belong to just a few families of fungi species. According to the CDC, the most common indoor molds are Cladosporium, Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Alternaria. Household molds can be a variety of colors, from orange-brown to green to gray to black. (Note that not all mold that is black in color is the more toxic species we call “black mold,” or Stachybotrys.) In contrast to the powdery texture of mildew, molds are typically fuzzy or slimy.

In nature, mold can play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down dead plants and leaves. In your house, those decomposition abilities aren’t quite so welcome. Mold spores fly through the air, and when they land in moist places, they start to grow—whether that’s on food, your ceiling, paper products, wood, carpet, leather, or elsewhere around your house—and in the process, destroy whatever they're growing on. Unlike mildew, most molds grow down into the surface of its habitat, making them more difficult to remove. In porous materials, mold grows into all the empty crevices, which is why it is often impossible to remove all the mold from ceiling tiles (or soft foods like bread).

Mold growing under a windowsill and near the carpet of a home
Mold growing in a Nashville home following a flood
Martin Grube, FEMA // Public Domain

Getting rid of the unsightly growth in your damp bathroom is more than just a matter of aesthetics. Indoor mold can cause allergic reactions, such as a stuffy nose or itchy eyes, and can lead to infections for people with compromised immune systems. Some people are more sensitive to mold than others, and may experience more symptoms when exposed to it. Generally speaking, though, mold spores are everywhere, so you’re never going to live a totally mold-free life. Spores will come into your home through windows, doorways, ventilation and climate control systems, and via your clothing, shoes, and pets.

But there’s only one way to effectively inhibit mold growth at home: Get rid of the moisture. That means fixing leaks, getting better ventilation, and possibly running a dehumidifier, according to the CDC’s recommendations on mold.

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