The reasons for sneezin’ this allergy season

Winter seems to have finally broken. Temperatures are becoming milder, the sun’s coming out and some plants are starting to bloom. However, the blooms are associated with allergic symptoms in those who are susceptible. While spring may be enjoyable for many, it can be much less so for allergy sufferers.

So, given that some of our readers are likely bracing themselves for allergy season, here’s are a few things to know about allergies and their treatments, along with some of their rarer manifestations.

Why are allergies even a thing?

Why do some people have allergies? Are they beneficial in some way? Do they convey some kind of survival advantage? It used to be thought that some allergies were a byproduct of the immune system’s preparedness to repel invaders like bacteria, viruses, parasites and others. Perhaps allergies were part of a hyper-vigilant immune response in some people, and that the results produced were unpleasant for the sufferers and basically useless.

Ruslan Medzhitov, of the discoverers of a very important biological component of cells, toll-like receptors, has a somewhat different take on allergies and has some interesting data to back his idea up. After working on allergies for decades, he looks at them somewhat differently.

He argues that allergies may in fact confer a survival advantage. They can, under certain circumstances, help the allergic individual survive what would kill his non-allergic counterpart. To support his findings, he’s bred some immune deficient mice who won’t be able to develop allergies. He’s allowing them to be exposed to toxins over time, the theory being that they will suffer noticeable tissue or organ damage that mice who can develop allergies won’t.

He discussed some of his (and others’) previous work on allergies, along with other areas of biology and immunology, here. It’s quite a read.
Allergies and their treatment

Typical allergy symptoms — the medial term being allergic rhinitis (AR) — include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, nasal and ocular itching. Estimates are that between 25-50 million Americans suffer from AR. It can keep a patient miserable for periods when the allergens are in high concentration. Some patients still suffer even when they take even the most advanced forms of antihistamines.

Allergy shots may provide relief by gradually desensitizing the patient to the allergen over time, but there are drawbacks. The first of which is time: The shots start off as weekly subcutaneous injections, so they require frequent trips to the doctor. Also, the shots aren’t cheap, and some people just really hate needles. Some so much that they’d rather suffer with their allergies, sneezing and wiping and wheezing.

Pollen, via Creative Commons

Pollen, via Creative Commons

Over the past several years, an oral medication has been developed that can do the same job as the injections. This form of treatment is called SLIT (sublingual immunotherapy). The pill is placed under the tongue daily and allowed to dissolve. It produces results similar to the allergy shots, without the frequent office visits and without the needles. The new medication is designed for those who suffer allergies to 5 different types of grass allergies. Other sublingual forms are undergoing development for allergies other than those caused by grasses. Oralair® has been used for several years in Europe and in other areas, and was just approved by the FDA for use in the USA this year — but it is likely not yet available in most US pharmacies. You can check out some of the research on SLIT here.

Could allergies be contagious?

Can you catch an allergy from someone else? Experience says no — you never picked up your grandmother’s allergy to rhubarb. You never got your sister’s allergy to ragweed. But there have been cases where a allergy has been transmitted, at least temporarily.

One such incident happened to a little girl who needed surgery. She needed to be transfused and got a few units of blood. As she was recovering, she ate some peanuts and had a severe allergic reaction. She had never had a peanut allergy before, but when she was discharged her parents were warned not to let her anywhere near peanuts, for fear that her allergy would be permanent.

A few months later, the little girl, having forgotten about her allergy, started munching on some peanuts. Her parents were terrified and were ready to take her to the emergency room for treatment when the reaction started. But it never did. The parents contacted her doctors. They were puzzled; she had clearly had a reaction to peanuts in the hospital, and allergies don’t just vanish.

When someone develops a food allergy, their immune system “sees” that particular food as foreign, something that could be dangerous. It produces a specific immunoglobulin, IgE (immunoglobulin E). The IgE circulates and attaches to mast cells and basophils, which are cells of the immune system scattered throughout the body. The next time the antigen (the particular food that the patient’s immune system has identified as a danger) is present, that antigen will bind to the IgE that was produced against it. That triggers the IgE to signal the attached cells to release chemicals, like histamine, that provoke an allergic reaction. This reaction can be mild to very severe. It can even cause life-threatening anaphylaxis (swelling of areas of the mouth and throat), closing off airways in the lungs causing difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, rapid heart rate and more.

Intrigued, the doctors wondered if one of the blood donors had had a peanut allergy. If so, the anti-peanut IgE that he had circulating could have attackhed to the little girl’s cells and then she would have developed the same peanut allergy. They traced the units of blood that she had received back to their donors. One of the donors said that he did have a severe peanut allergy, so his IgE had temporarily caused allergic reactions for her. Temporary because over time, his IgE would degrade and no longer be attached to her mast cells or basophils. Since she wasn’t producing her own anti-peanut IgE, once his was gone she was no longer allergic.

So, under certain unusual circumstances, allergies can be contagious.

Unusual allergies

Did you ever hear a parent say something like, “I really have a hard time getting my son to take a bath, I swear he must be allergic to water.” They joke, but it’s sort of possible for someone to actually be allergic to water. At least, exposing the skin to water can for some individuals provoke an allergic reaction that produces skin lesions and intense itching. Having a skin reaction to some physical change has been noted before in susceptible individuals. Some will break out in hives if pressure is applied to the skin, others will develop it if they exercise. Some will develop it from exposure to cold, others from exposure to heat.

The condition is called aquagenic urticaria and it’s extremely rare. Only about a hundred cases have been described since it was first discovered in the 1960s. It is more common in females than males and may start around puberty (but can start at any age). The patient notices their child breaking out in hives almost immediately after having water contact with their skin (after a bath, shower, swimming, being caught in a rainstorm, etc.). Characteristic lesions, wheals, quickly develop accompanied by very intense itching.

The lesions and itching usually also resolve reasonably quickly, even without a specific treatment. But it is extremely uncomfortable for the time it persists. For some as-yet undetermined reason, often only the upper body (face, arms, trunk) is affected. Imagine being caught in a rainstorm and suddenly having your face, trunk and arms turn bright pink, have wheal formation and then begin to itch like crazy. Or how difficult it would be just to keep clean. Quickly washing a small part of your body, then dying it quickly in hopes of avoiding an allergic reaction.

Recently, a new case was discovered in Utah. The patient had her first reaction when she was 12 years old. She and her family went on vacation. When she went swimming in the hotel pool, she developed the typical skin lesions and itching. Doctors at that time thought that she was having a reaction to some chemical in the pool water, but she had the same reaction when swimming in a clear lake not too long after. After a little digging on the Internet, she and her family went to her dermatologist and gave him the information. The condition is so rare that even they had to do some research of their own before they decided to test and confirm that she had it.

There are several different theories as to how aquagenic urticaria develops. One is that water forms a complex with a molecule that these patients produce in their skins, and that complex — not the water itself — is what the patient is allergic to. Another is that movement of something from a deeper layer of the skin towards the surface, that only occurs with the application of water, triggers the reaction. But researchers can do no more than speculate as to why it’s more prevalent in girls and most often develops during puberty. It’s difficult to study a disease when such a small number of people are affected.

The good news is that there are some effective treatments that may help to control the condition. For example, Fexofenadine (Allegra®), a third-generation antihistamine, can work for some patients. Patients can be put on daily doses of these medications to help prevent reactions. So even if your kid really is allergic to water, they still have no excuse.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • 1jetpackangel

    My allergy pill used to be Benadryl, though I couldn’t take it at night because it amped me up. It started to become less effective over the years, but since I have weird reactions to new meds, I toughed it out. Until one day, in the middle of 102-degree fever delirium, when Benadryl finally jumped on the paradoxical reactions list** and gave me a three-hour sneezing fit. Needless to say, I was a little freaked out. Now I take Chlortabs.

    **Unisom and Tylenol PM work fine, but one day at a fast food joint a manager handed me a non-drowsy tension headache pill and I almost fell asleep on my feet over a 400-degree flat grill. NyQuil and DayQuil are reversed. Gas-X is, um, also ‘reversed.’ (Fun to discover in public.) Mucinex is an EXTREME diuretic. And Alka-Seltzer makes me hallucinate.

  • goulo

    Interesting story about the blood transfusion + peanut allergy!

    FWIW the boiled (then cooled a bit of course) salt water in the nose treatment has given me some relief during severe pollen allergies. No longer living in central Texas gave much more relief. :)

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  • docsterx

    Good. Those brain-eating amoebas are really frightening. And they can be picked up from swimming in certain areas of the US. Swimmers should be aware of risks of swimming in areas where the amoebas exist in the wild.

  • Indigo

    I have not yet met an antihistamine that does not leave me groggy, even following the directions on the label.

  • Indigo

    True that.

  • quax

    Certainly most appreciated, and thanks for yet another fascinating and engagingly written article.

  • emjayay

    I never got the neti pot or other saline water in the nose things. Just don’t seem to work. 12 hour sprays work great, but you quickly become physically addicted because of developing a rebound. Flonase is now available OTC, it works eventually, but can cost you more than prescription because you pay the whole cost. But don’t have to go to a doc, obviously.

  • docsterx

    Since some OTC saline sprays can be pricey, thought I’d share WebMD’s recipe and info.

  • Based on your prior cautions, Mark, I’d changed my neti habits. I now use distilled water, which I then put into a clean glass and then microwave for exactly 30 seconds. Turns out that results in the perfect temperature.

  • Allergies aren’t (usually) contagious, but they do have a genetic component.

    As for antihistamines, I’ll admit there’s a better selection now than there used to be. However, it does bear mentioning one should pay attention to both the possible drug interactions and side-effects.

    Personally, I’d been having decent success with lortadine (aka ‘Claritin’), but I noticed after a couple weeks I’d begun having non-stop headaches/migraines. Well, guess what one of the known side-effects is?

  • AnitaMann

    I’m strongly allergic to almost everything airborne – grass,weed, tree pollen, dust, animal dander – and I live in LA, where the allergy “season” is 360 days a year. There is some relief on the days it rains, which are fewer and fewer each year. Yes you have permission to pity me. I’ve been taking shots for three years and I don’t see any difference. And insurance only covers 30 percent. I’ll try Oralair when it comes here. The only permanent solution is moving to a frozen place.

  • Indigo

    That’s pretty much how I do it, it’s just that the rigamarole involved in using the neti pot takes up more time than I’m willing to invest. I use it sometimes as you describe and clean it up but here on planet Earth, as I’m sure you know from experience, time is limited. Commercial saline nasal sprays get the job done and I feel remarkably clear afterwards/

  • docsterx

    You can make your own saline for nasal spraying or neti pot use. Just be sure that you boil the water (and let it cool) or use sterile water and thoroughly clean the neti pot between uses. Including letting it dry completely. Information and directions here: http://www.webmd.com/allergies/sinus-pain-pressure-11/neti-pots

    There have been very rare instances of certain amoebas being found in some local water supplies that have caused fatal brain infections. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/03/rare-infection-prompts-neti-pot-warning/

    Tap water can contain other microorganisms as well. If you use that as a water source, make sure that it’s boiled and cooled so you don’t introduce something infectious into your nose or throat.

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  • Indigo

    Saline nose spray helps and it’s easier to use than a neti pot. As for the OTC drugs, they’re still drugs. Use with caution if at all.

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