Miserable spring allergies? Why that's a good sign

April 25, 2012 at 2:10 PM ET

As you pull the 100th tissue from the box this allergy season, you can comfort yourself knowing your runny nose and itchy, watery eyes may be a sign that your immune system is functioning perfectly.

There are numerous reports that spring pollen really is hitting people harder than usual this year. But these allergic reactions are just the body’s way of protecting us from other environmental toxins that could do a lot worse than simply annoy us, according to a new report published in Nature.

The body has two types of immune responses, explains the study’s senior author, Ruslan Medzhitov, Ph. D., a professor of immunology at the Yale University Medical School.

The one we’re most familiar with, Type 1, is designed to kill off nasty pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Type 2 battles a host of environmental hazards --  airborne pollutants like diesel exhaust, venoms, and noxious chemicals, for example -- with completely different weapons. Pollen won't hurt you, but it gets attacked because the body sees it as an irritant, just like diesel fumes. A runny nose will spew out pollutants we breathe in, while nasal inflammation will block, at least partly, more of these irritants from getting into the body where they can do harm.

Inflammation around a bug bite can stop a tick or a mosquito from getting to blood vessels if the skin responds fast enough. This will not only protect us from having our blood sucked out, but it may also prevent the transfer of dangerous pathogens like the malaria parasite.

Another strategy used by Type 2, Medzhitov explains, is to cause us enough discomfort to make us shy away from toxic plants like poison ivy and stinging insects like bees.

So, even though our reactions are vexing, Medzhitov says, “You should feel good about it because it means your body can reduce exposure to substances that are bad for you. “

There’s even been a hint in the scientific literature that people who are allergy prone are less likely to develop certain cancers, Medzhitov says.  “You can imagine if there’s some toxic substance in the environment that can be carcinogenic you might be better protected,” he adds.

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