The Sound of Science - "Allergies"

Aug 3, 2018

Kate: Welcome to The Sound of Science on WNIJ.

Sam: Kate, today we have a have a question that I am particularly interested in knowing the answer to. The question comes from Jackson: Why do some people have allergies and some people do not?

Kate: I know why you are interested, Sam. Don’t you have a severe allergy to some types of seeds?

Sam: Yeah, I have a terrible allergy to sunflower seeds and it can be a real pain in the neck. Why does that type of reaction happen to me but not to everyone?

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Kate: Well, despite allergies being something that many people suffer from, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why allergies exist.

Sam: I think it is especially strange that people develop allergies at different times in their lives.

Kate: Actually, that is an important clue to why we might have allergies in general. An allergy is a similar reaction to the way your body reacts to a parasite.

Sam: Well, my body has scared me off sunflower seeds. But why would it want me to fear them? They don’t look dangerous.

Kate: Well, one possible explanation is that your body has mislabeled sunflower seeds as a toxin. The first time your body was exposed to them, it accidentally labeled the seeds as dangerous. Once the sunflower seeds are labeled “dangerous,” your body produces antibodies to the seeds. These antibodies can then trigger the familiar allergic reaction.

Sam: Wait, this sounds like how a vaccine works, but the antibodies you develop from a vaccine protect you against a disease. I don’t feel protected from sunflower seeds. Are they related?

Kate: Yes, very. When you get a vaccination against a disease your body is exposed to a small amount of germs. Your body recognizes the intruder and starts to form antibodies to kill the disease.

Scientists think allergies are similar, but with a mistake. Your body incorrectly labels something neutral or even positive as an enemy.

Sam: Well, that doesn’t really help me with my allergy. And scientists don’t know why one person is allergic compared to someone else?

Kate: Nope, but that’s part of science. It is always growing and trying to answer ever more difficult questions. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to answer more questions about allergies!