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.

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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.

7 Facts About Blood

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Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

9 Surprising Facts About the Scientific Study of Sex

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vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

The scientific study of sex is much more exciting than an awkward sex ed class. While writing my book Sex Weird-o-Pedia, these were some of the most interesting facts about science and sex that I came across.

1. Some sex researchers didn't want their findings to get into the wrong hands.

The pioneering sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing didn’t want his knowledge in the hands of ordinary folk. So he wrote Psychopathia Sexualis, the founding document of modern sexology—which was published in Germany in 1886 then translated and published in English in 1939—in Latin to discourage regular Joes (and/or Janes) from reading it.

2. You burn more calories mowing the lawn than you do having sex.

Young woman poses for selfie while mowing the lawn
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Sex might seem strenuous when things get hot and heavy, but it's usually not that great of a workout. You'd have to go at it for nearly 200 minutes to burn as much energy having sex as you do during a 30-minute run. Even mowing the lawn burns about three times more calories than sex. According to the British Heart Foundation, sex burns about the same amount of energy per minute as ironing clothes.

3. A surprising number of mothers claim to be virgins.

In a 2013 study of several thousand pregnant women in the U.S. published by BMJ, about 1 percent of the participants claimed they were virgins when they gave birth. This, of course, calls into question the veracity of studies that rely on self-reported sexual behaviors.

4. Penicillin may have ignited the sexual revolution.

One economist says that penicillin, and not the birth control pill, was the real enabler of the sexual revolution. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2013 shows that penicillin contributed to a 75 percent decline in the number of deaths caused by syphilis from 1947 to 1957. Since the new treatment made sex safer, people started having riskier sex, which resulted in increases in the numbers of children born out of wedlock and teenage pregnancies.

5. Twins can have different dads.

A photo of fraternal twins
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While it is very rare, it is possible for fraternal twins to have two different fathers. What’s more common is for a rom-com to be based on this scenario.

6. Gender may influence how people handle sexual jealousy.

Research from evolutionary psychologists indicates that people’s gender influences how they react to sexual jealousy. For men, they react more strongly to sexual unfaithfulness than emotional infidelity. For women, it is the reverse. The theory behind these behaviors comes back to evolution: Males who were intolerant toward their wives becoming sexually active with other men were less likely to become an object of derision and more likely to see their own genes pass onto future generations. Women who prevented their husbands from emotionally bonding with other women reduced the chances of the men spending their resources on other women.

7. One of Ivan Pavlov's colleagues created his own (slightly x-rated) conditioning experiment with dogs.

You’re probably aware of Russian researcher Ivan Pavlov and his famous conditioning experiment in which he trained a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell. What you might not know is that one of Pavlov’s American students, W. Horsley Gantt, conditioned dogs to become sexually aroused when they heard specific tones. The experiment, according to Mandy Merck's In Your Face: 9 Sexual Studies, was intended "to study conflicts of the drives between ... experimentally induced anxiety states and sexual excitement."

8. Couples whose first child is a girl are more likely to get divorced.

Parents pay attention to their phones instead of their daughter
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Married couples whose first child is a girl are more likely to get divorced than those whose first child is a boy. Scientists are split as to why this is. One theory is that female embryos are better able to endure maternal stress than male embryos, so pregnant women in unhappy marriages are less likely to have a miscarriage if the child they are bearing is a girl. But once they have a daughter, these couples are more likely to split up since there were already fissures in their relationship prior to the child’s birth.

9. There's a link between pubic hair and STIs.

A downside of pubic grooming is that it might raise STI risk. In a study conducted by a University of Texas scholar, people who regularly shaved their pubic areas contracted STIs about 80 percent more often than those who never shaved down there. One suggestion is that those who regularly shave are more likely to tear their skin, making it easier for viruses to enter the body.

Ross Benes is the author of Sex Weird-o-Pedia: The Ultimate Book of Shocking, Scandalous, and Incredibly Bizarre Sex Facts.

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