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How Do Allergy Medicines Actually Work?

girl blowing nose
(Image: Getty Images)

Ah yes, springtime is here! The weather starts to warm, the trees and plants begin to bloom, and a lot of us begin our annual run in with seasonal allergies! This time of year there are a lot of people taking allergy medicines, but what’s going on when you take these pills? How do allergy medicines work? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

First of all, allergies are a pretty common issue for many individuals. Over 50 million Americans suffer from some sort of allergy, and many of us experience what is known as seasonal allergy symptoms - things like coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, and a runny nose during the spring or fall.

Seasonal allergies are different from food and insect allergies, which can cause more serious issues like rashes, hives, breathing trouble, asthma attacks, or even death. Allergies are due to our bodies thinking they’re doing a good thing - that is, fighting off something that’s attacking our body. However, most of the time, these allergens are otherwise harmless.

A lot of us take some sort of allergy medication to manage our symptoms this time of year, commonly known as antihistamines. But how do these pills really work? To begin the journey through seasonal allergy science we much first begin with a compound made out of only 17 atoms: histamine. Histamine is in our body all the time - it's in our brain, in our stomachs, in our feet, throat, mouth, and nose, all over the body. It usually helps a lot with wound recovery.

Histamine release promotes blood flow to the affected areas - this increases the body’s ability to attract other key members of our immune system to areas that need attention. Unfortunately for seasonal allergy sufferers, sometimes our body mistakes the otherwise harmless pollen grains in the air as an attack on our body and thus launches an immune response of histamines to the nose, throat, eyes, and lungs. This can make us feel sneezy, wheezy, itchy, and teary-eyed when trees like oak, cedar, birch, and pine release their pollen from February through May.

Luckily the stores are ready to sell you some temporary relief. So what do these medications do? This class of antihistamines - specifically H1 receptor antagonists - block histamine’s ability to activate the symptoms we suffer from, letting us all breathe a little easier this time of year. That’s the quick scientific walkthrough on the relationship between us and the world around us in terms of seasonal allergies. Some folks keep mentioning local honey as an alternative, but there have yet to be any scientific studies that show the benefit of local honey on allergies. These medicines, however, work with our bodies to decrease the symptoms we experience during pollen heavy parts of the year.

There you go, folks. Science, hard at work making your springtime a little less a-pollen.

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