allergy, hypersensitive reaction of the body tissues of certain individuals to certain substances that, in similar amounts and circumstances, are innocuous to other persons. Allergens, or allergy-causing substances, can be airborne substances (e.g., pollens, dust, smoke), infectious agents (bacteria, fungi, parasites), foods (strawberries, chocolate, eggs), contactants (poison ivy, chemicals, dyes), or physical agents (light, heat, cold). It is believed that a person who is hereditarily predisposed toward allergy produces, when sensitized, special weak types of antibodies, called reagins, that give little immune protection but cause local tissue damage during the antibody-antigen reaction (see immunity). Allergens can affect the respiratory system, the reaction manifesting itself as asthma or hay fever, or they can affect the skin, causing wheals and rashes. Allergens may also act on the gastrointestinal tract, causing nausea and vomiting. Allergic reactions to substances injected into the bloodstream can cause violent and sometimes fatal reactions (see anaphylaxis; serum sickness). The best treatment of allergic reactions is prevention, i.e., elimination of the offending substances from the sensitive person's environment. If this is not possible, desensitization (i.e., deliberate production of the allergic reaction by injecting the allergen, after which the sufferer is no longer susceptible) is sometimes helpful. Antihistamine drugs may give temporary relief. See histamine.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.