What Are Histamines?

You've probably heard of antihistamines. They're medicines that tame allergy symptoms. But what are histamines?

They're chemicals your immune system makes. Histamines act like bouncers at a club. They help your body get rid of something that's bothering you -- in this case, an allergy trigger, or "allergen."

Histamines start the process that hustles those allergens out of your body or off your skin. They can make you sneeze, tear up, or itch -- whatever it takes to get the job done. They are part of your body's defense system.

When you have allergies, some of your triggers -- such as pollen, pet dander, or dust -- seem harmless. But your immune system sees them as a threat and responds.

Your body's intention -- to keep you safe -- is good. But its overreaction gives you those all-too-familiar allergy symptoms, which you then try to stop with an antihistamine.

Histamines Unleashed

When you come across your allergy trigger, your immune system knows it and launches a chain reaction to defend you.

First, it sends a chemical signal to "mast cells" in your skin, lungs, nose, mouth, gut, and blood. The message is, "Release histamines," which are stored in the mast cells.

When they leave the mast cells, histamines boost blood flow in the area of your body the allergen affected. This causes inflammation, which lets other chemicals from your immune system step in to do repair work. Histamines then dock at special places called "receptors" in your body.

The result? If your nose was affected -- say by pollen -- histamines prompt thin walls, called membranes, to make more mucus. You can get a runny or stuffy nose. And you'll sneeze. The mucus can also bother your throat and make you cough. Histamines can make your eyes and nose itch.

Foods and Histamines

If you have a food allergy, histamines are in on that response process, too. When you accidentally eat or drink something you shouldn't, they'll work in your gut to trigger your allergic reaction.

Some foods are also naturally high in histamines. These include aged and fermented foods and alcohol (especially red wine). Some people may be sensitive to that.

"Histamine poisoning" can happen if you eat fish that weren't kept at safe temperatures and spoiled before you got them. Those fish can build up high levels of histamines, which can make you sick. Doctors call this "scombrotoxin fish poisoning," or SFP. It's not likely to happen with good food safety practices.

Continued

Did You Know?

Many plants and animals also have histamines. For instance, they're in some insect venom.

If you're stung or bitten by an insect, your own histamines will also kick in as part of your defenses -- in this case, because you really are under attack.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Luqman Seidu, MD on June 01, 2016

Sources

SOURCES

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Histamine."

KidsHealth: "Histamine."

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Allergies."

American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: "Allergic Rhinitis, Sinusitis, and Rhinosinusitis."

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Pollen Allergy."

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Rhinitis (Nasal Allergies)."

Health Direct Australia: "Antihistamines."

Royal Society of Chemistry: "Chemistry in its element: compounds -- Histamine."

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: "Histamine."

Maintz, L. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2007.

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Pagination