of lymphocytes during an immune response. Both those examples represent severe immune suppression in which the adverse outcome is easily detected with clinical measurements.
Immune suppression can also result from exposure to chemicals in the workplace or in the environment and be manifested as recurrent infections, opportunistic infections, a higher incidence of a specific category of infections, or a higher incidence of cancer. However, unless the immune suppression is severe, it is often difficult to obtain clinical evidence that directly links chemically induced changes in immune function to increased infectious disease or cancer, because many confounding factors can influence a person’s ability to combat infection. Such confounders include age, vaccination status, the virulence of the pathogen, the presence of other diseases (such as diabetes), stress, smoking, and the use of drugs or alcohol. Therefore, immunotoxicology studies are often conducted in laboratory animals to understand the scope and mechanism of chemical-induced immune suppression. Results of such studies can be used to develop biomarkers to assess effects in human populations. Infectious-disease models in animals can also be used to determine whether the pattern of disease changes with chemical exposure.
The immune system sometimes responds to a foreign substance that is not pathogenic. Such immunogenic substances are called allergens. Like most immune-based diseases, allergic diseases have both environmental and genetic risk factors. Their prevalence has increased in many countries in recent decades (CDC, 2004; Linneberg et al., 2000; Simpson et al., 2008; Sly, 1999). Major forms of allergic diseases are asthma, allergic rhinitis, atopic dermatitis, and food allergy. The response to some allergens, such as pollen and bee venom, results in the production of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. Once produced, IgE antibodies bind to mast cells, specialized cells that occur in tissues throughout the body, including lung airways, the intestinal wall, and blood-vessel walls. When a person is exposed to the allergen again, it binds to the antibodies on the mast cells and caused them to release histamine and leukotrienes, which produce the symptoms associated with an allergic response. Other allergens, such as poison ivy and nickel, activate allergen-specific lymphocytes at the site of contact (usually the skin) that release substances that cause inflammation and tissue damage. Some allergic responses, such as those to food allergens, may involve a combination of allergen-specific lymphocyte–driven and IgE–driven inflammation. Allergic responses may be manifested in specific tissues (such as skin, eye, airways, and gastrointestinal tract) or result in a system-wide response called anaphylaxis.