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Allergies attack!

No more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! That's the message that blared from some school lunchrooms in the Northeast last August. The ban came after a 15-year-old Connecticut girl died eating a piece of cake with peanuts inside. She suffered a severe allergy attack that made her blood pressure plummet and her throat swell, preventing air from reaching her lungs.

Kids' favorite sandwich isn't the only item being banned because of allergies. In December, the mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, signed an ordinance prohibiting certain kinds of trees. Local health officials say the pollen spewed by elm, cypress, mulberry, and male juniper trees triggers allergies in 20 percent of the city's 600,000 residents. To keep the population from sniffling, the city's "pollen police" will slap a $500 fine on anyone who sells or plants the trees. Other cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, have similar tree bans.

Is this allergy hysteria? Are allergic reactions on the rise? Can peanut butter really kill?

Stay calm, says Dr. Susan Rudd Wynn, an allergist (allergy specialist) in Fort Worth, Texas. While 35 to 40 million Americans suffer from some type of allergy, most reactions are mild and only temporary. In extremely rare cases, however, allergies can kill. The best way to protect yourself, Dr. Wynn says, is to learn the facts about allergies and know when you need to see a doctor. Here's some background to get you started:

Q What is an allergy?

An allergy is an overreaction of the body's immune system to substances it normally should ignore. Our immune system is designed to fight off disease-causing invaders like bacteria and viruses. But sometimes, the body's defenses identify harmless substances like peanuts, dust, mold, or pollen as dangerous invaders. Immune-system cells launch a host of chemical weapons to attack and destroy the "enemy." In the process, the person experiences unpleasant -- and sometimes life-threatening -- symptoms.

Q What's happening in my

body when I have an allergy

attack?

A Each allergen (allergy-causing compound) you inhale, touch, or swallow, carries a unique protein marker called an antigen on its surface. The mast cells of your immune system recognize specific antigens and form chemical bonds with them. That reaction triggers the mast cells to release a host of chemicals into the body, including a chemical called histamine. When histamine gets into your body tissues, it makes blood vessels open and release lots of fluid into your eyes and nose. Histamine also makes you itchy; it stimulates nerves in your skin to send an "itchy" signal to the brain.

Q What are the most

common things people

are allergic to?

A Look out for protein-packed pollens, mold, feathers, the feces of d mites (microscopic critters that live on household dust), and animal dander (skin flakes and dried bits of saliva and urine). High-protein foods like milk, eggs, soy beans, shellfish, and peanuts, as well as antibiotics and insect stings, can also trigger allergic reactions. Proteins tend to provoke allergies because they bind easily to antibodies (another type of protein) on the surface of mast cells.

Q How do I know if my

runny nose is an

allergic reaction -- and

not just a cold?

A Sometimes doctors can't even tell the difference. In general, colds last three to seven days. An allergy can last longer -- or shorter -- depending on how long you're exposed to the allergen. During springtime, for instance, pollen can linger in the air for several weeks. An allergy to your grandmother's cat might disappear as soon as you return home because your mast cells are no longer stimulated. Also, colds don't cause itchiness, as allergies do.

Q Can anyone get an allergy?

A. Yes. In general, allergies are genetic. If your parents have had allergies, you could, too. People with allergies tend to have more allergy-related antibodies in their blood than nonallergic people.

Q I think I'm allergic to

my friend's dog. How can I

find out?

A An allergist will examine you and take a detailed history of your symptoms, your living and playing environment, and your family's medical history. The doctor may also conduct tests. The most common is skin testing: The allergist will scratch your skin with tiny amounts of different allergens and look for a small reaction (like redness, itchiness, or puffiness). If you have that kind of reaction to dog dander, you're allergic.

Q Is there anything I can do to

feel better?

A Doctors will generally prescribe antihistamines, drugs that combat the nasty effects of histamine. Most antihistamines are inexpensive and can be bought over-the-counter. Decongestants help clear up runny noses by narrowing blood vessels. Doctors may also recommend several prescription allergy medications

NOTE. In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on the widely prescribed allergy drug Seldane because it can cause a rare, but fatal, heart rhythm when taken with other drugs.

Q Is it really true

that kids get

more allergies than

adults?

A Some people get allergies as kids. Other people get them later in life. Doctors aren't sure why, but kids today seem to get more allergies than ever before. One theory is that kids spend more time in school, where they're more likely to get colds from other kids. Allergists theorize that cold viruses might switch on the genes that produce allergy-related antibodies. Also, from a very young age, kids are exposed to many allergens, including dust mites and the dander of pets. Some allergists say the genes that trigger allergies may kick in sooner if kids are exposed to allergens before age 3, when their immune systems aren't fully developed.

Is asthma an allergy.?

A No, but certain allergens like pollen, mold, animal dander, and dust mites can trigger asthma -- a narrowing of the airways. About 80 percent of kids with asthma have allergies. But just because you have an allergy doesn't mean you'll get asthma (or vice versa).

Q Can an allergy to peanuts

really kill you?

A Yes, but it's very rare. An estimated 1 percent of American kids are allergic to peanuts. According to the Food Allergy Network, about 100 Americans die from allergic reactions to food each year. The probable cause is anaphylactic shock, an allergic response in which histamine spreads throughout the entire body and causes a dangerous drop in blood pressure; flushing (turning red); difficulty breathing; swelling of the throat, tongue, and nose; and a loss of consciousness. Anaphylactic shock probably killed the young girl in Connecticut.

Q What can someone

do to prevent

anaphylactic shock?

A If you know you have a food allergy -- or are allergic - to medications like antibiotics -- stay away from those substances. Don't even taste a peanut M&M. And avoid insects that sting. A doctor may advise you to carry a syringe to inject yourself with the hormone epinephrine, which counteracts the effects of histamine.

Q Is there a cure for allergies?

A Doctors can't cure food allergies. But allergy shots -- immunotherapy -- can eliminate allergic reactions to insect stings and many types of pollen. For insect stings, a doctor injects the patient with small doses of insect venom. The injection prompts antibodies (not those associated with allergies) to kick in and destroy the allergen before it can cause an allergic reaction. Gradually, the doctor increases the dose until the patient builds up resistance. Ninety-seven percent of the time, the patient will never have to worry about bees at a picnic again.

Q Where can I

get more info

about allergies?

A For a free brochure called "When should I see an allergist?" write to:

American College of Allergy,

Asthma, and Immunology

85 West Algonquin Road

Suite 550

Arlington Heights, ILL 60005

For more information about allergies or about becoming an allergist, visit this Web site: http://allergy.mcg.edu

MAKE YOUR OWN SNOT

Is that green slime dripping out of your nose? No, it'snot! (Hahaha!) What is mucus anyway,and does it serve a purpose (other than being gross)? Why not whip up some fake snot and experiment to find out?

WHAT YOU NEED: light corn syrup * 3 packets unflavored gelatin * measuring cup * water * microwave oven or stove * oven mitt * a fork * green food dye * broom * dust pan * gloves

WHAT TO DO: PART A

1 . Heat 1/2 cup water until it boils. Use oven mitt to remove from beat.

2. Sprinkle in three packets of gelatin.

3. Let soften a few minutes and stir with fork.

4. Add enough corn syrup to make 1 cup of thick glop.

5. Add 1-2 drops of food dye. Stir with fork. As it cools, you'll need to add more water, spoonful by spoonful.

6. Lift some snot with the fork. Notice the strands?

YEAH,SO?

Pretty gross, huh? Real mucus is made of long strands of protein and sugars (glucose), which make it stretchy and gooey. In your fake snot, you used gelatin for protein and cane sugar instead of glucose.

Does this glop serve any purpose? Try this:

WHAT TO DO: PART 8

1. Sweep up some dust around the classroom (science labs are a good place to start).

2. Wearing gloves, sprinkle some dust on your snot and stir. Notice anything?

YEAH,SO?

Mucus often traps dust, pollen, and other impurities in the air so we don't breathe them in. How con that help someone with a cold? Which do you think is better at trapping foreign bodies -- the thick mucus you get with a cold or the thin runny stuff you get with allergies? Why does snot sometimes make breathing difficult?
COPYRIGHT 1997 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on science experiment involving the production of mucus
Author:Stiefel, Chana Freiman
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 21, 1997
Words:1590
Previous Article:Where have all the pollinators gone?
Next Article:Endangered species: fur, fins, and fame.
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