The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 57

71. What other diseases “look like” mast cell disease?

Mast cell diseases have many symptoms that are also commonly found in other disorders. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to diagnose correctly. The following conditions have symptoms that can look like mast cell disease.

Neuroendocrine cells are specialized cells that help to pass signals from the nervous system to nearby cells, causing those cells to release hormones. There are many types of neuroendocrine tumors. Some conditions that look like mast cell disease are caused by these tumors. Symptoms from them are caused by the response of too much hormone.

Carcinoid syndrome is the result of a rare cancerous growth called carcinoid tumor. This tumor releases too much serotonin into the body. This can cause flushing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and cardiovascular abnormalities such as abnormal heart rhythm. Mast cells also release serotonin but they release much less than carcinoid tumors.

VIPoma means vasoactive intestinal peptide –oma. When a word has –oma at the end, it means that it is a tumor. A VIPoma is a tumor that starts in the pancreas. It releases a chemical called vasoactive intestinal peptide. VIPoma can cause flushing, low blood pressure, and severe diarrhea leading to dehydration. A VIPoma can also abnormalities in the composition of the blood. Many patients have low potassium, high calcium, and high blood sugar.

Pheochromocytomas start as cells in the adrenal glands. They release excessive norepinephrine and epinephrine. They can cause headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety, and blood pressure abnormalities, among other things.

Zollinger-Ellison syndrome is a condition in which tumors release too much of a hormone called gastrin into the GI tract. This causes the stomach to make too much acid, damaging the stomach and affecting absorption.

Some blood cancers can cause mast cells to become overly activated. They may also cause an increase in tryptase, an important marker in diagnosing systemic mastocytosis.

Some other cancerous tumors like medullary thyroid carcinoma can cause mast cell type symptoms including flushing, diarrhea, and itching.

Most diseases with any allergic component can look like mast cell disease.

Eosinophilic gastrointestinal disease occurs when certain white blood cells called eosinophils become too reactive, causing inflammation to many triggers. Furthermore, people are more frequently being diagnosed with both EGID and mast cell disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which gluten causes an inflammatory reaction inside the body. The damage to the GI tract can be significant. Malabsorption is not unusual. Children with celiac disease may grow poorly. Bloating, diarrhea, ulceration, and abdominal pain are commonly reported.

FPIES (food protein induced enterocolitis syndrome) can cause episodes of vomiting, acidosis, low blood pressure and shock as a result of ingesting a food trigger.

Traditional (IgE) allergies can also look just like mast cell disease. They are usually distinguished by the fact that mast cell patients may react to a trigger whether or not their body specifically recognizes it as an allergen (does not make an IgE molecule to the trigger). Confusingly, it is possible to have both traditional IgE allergies and mast cell disease.

Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is commonly found in patients with mast cell disease. However, POTS itself can have similar symptoms to mast cell disease. Palpitations, blood pressure abnormalities, sweating, anxiety, nausea, and headaches are some symptoms both POTS and mast cell disease have. There are also other forms of dysautonomia which mimic the presentation of mast cell disease.

Achlorhydria is a condition in which the stomach does not produce enough acid to break down food properly. This can cause a lot of GI pain, malabsorption, anemia, and weight loss.

Hereditary angioedema and acquired angioedema are conditions that cause a person to swell, often severely. Swelling may affect the airway and can be fatal if the airway is not protected. Swelling within the abdomen can cause significant pain and GI symptoms like nausea and vomiting.

Gastroparesis is paralysis of the stomach. People with GP often experience serious GI pain, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, bloating and swelling.

Inflammatory bowel diseases and irritable bowel syndrome can all cause GI symptoms identical to what mast cell patients experience.

This list is not exhaustive. There are many other diseases that can look similar to mast cell disease. These are the ones I have come across most commonly.

For more detailed reading, please visit the following posts:

Gastroparesis: Part 1
Gastroparesis: Treatment (part 2)
Gastroparesis: Diabetes and gastroparesis (Part 3)
Gastroparesis: Post-surgical gastroparesis (Part 4)
Gastroparesis: Less common causes (Part 5)
Gastroparesis: Autonomic nervous system and vagus nerve (Part 6)
Gastroparesis: Idiopathic gastroparesis (Part 7)

Food allergy series: Food related allergic disorders
Food allergy series: FPIES (part 1)
Food allergy series: FPIES (part 2)
Food allergy series: Eosinophilic colitis
Food allergy series: Eosinophilic gastrointestinal disease (part 1)
Food allergy series: Eosinophilic gastrointestinal disease (part 2)
Food allergy series: Eosinophilic gastrointestinal disease (part 3)
Food allergy series: Eosinophilic esophagitis (Part 1)
Food allergy series: Eosinophilic esophagitis (Part 2)
Food allergy series: Eosinophilic esophagitis (Part 3)

Angioedema: Part 1
Angioedema: Part 2
Angioedema: Part 3
Angioedema: Part 4

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 1
Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 2
Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 3
Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 4
Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 5
Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 6
Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 7

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 50

62. Is it possible to become tolerant of a trigger again?

Yes, sometimes.

Desensitization is the term for when your body becomes tolerant of something that it previously reacted to. While it usually means becoming tolerant of a medication, it is a general term so many mast cell patients use “desensitization” to mean becoming tolerant of anything they used to react to, including food or environmental triggers.

Traditionally, desensitizing is done by exposing the body to a small amount of a trigger, then a little more at a later time, and so on until the body accepts a reasonable amount. In the regular allergies, in the US, “allergy shots” are used for this. A patient is injected with a tiny amount of an allergen repeatedly until their immune system stays calm when exposed to the trigger.

There are some newer approaches for desensitization that use certain newer medications. In particular, anti-IgE therapy has been very well described for helping to force a patient to tolerate a trigger. Antihistamines and/or corticosteroids can be used to control the level of allergic response.

In some instances, a rapid desensitization procedure can be used to force tolerance. These procedures are performed in a medical setting and may provide tolerance in a matter of days. They are usually used in situations where the benefit of a drug to which the patient reacts outweighs the risk of anaphylaxis, such as patients who need to use a specific chemotherapy drug to treat an aggressive disease.

Importantly, if a patient becomes desensitized to a substance, they must be regularly exposed to that substance in order to continue tolerating it. Sometimes, a patient must be exposed daily in order to not react to the trigger. This is very patient and substance specific.

Mast cell patients are different from typical allergy patients in a lot of ways, many of which we don’t understand. Patients ask from time to time if “allergy shots” or something similar will help them. Mast cell patients who have an IgE allergy to a substance may get some benefit from allergy shots. Specifically, allergy shots are recommended for mastocytosis patients who have allergies to certain insect stings.

But what if they don’t have an IgE allergy? Will gradually increasing the amount of trigger in a series of exposures allow the body to accept it?  I know plenty of mast cell patients who have used allergy shots or oral immunotherapy to improve trigger tolerance. I can’t think of any reason why this wouldn’t help if you could safely increase the exposures.

For mast cell patients, the issue is that reactions can be so serious that desensitization is difficult to achieve. Patients can sometimes overcome this by using IV Benadryl, IV steroids, or a continuous IV epinephrine infusion. Mast cell patients should never attempt to force tolerance to any trigger without receiving advice from a health care provider that understands their specific health situation.

Food allergies are widely recognized as being different from other kinds of allergies. We are learning about food allergies in real time right now. Food allergies are on the rise and now affect huge numbers of people around the world. This means that there’s tons of research on it, which is great. But it means that we still don’t understand them that well. For this reason, desensitization to food is trickier.

There are a few methods commonly used in mast cell patients to manage food reactions. Sometimes a gradually increasing amount of trigger is eaten while the patient is monitored and given medications to manage any reactions, essentially a rapid desensitization for food. I find this approach is taken more commonly with children, largely because it is the recommended procedure for reintroducing triggers to children with FPIES. Sometimes people find that when they are exposed to a trigger for the first time in a while, they tolerate it until a second exposure. In these scenarios, rotation diets can be helpful. Allergy shots or oral immunotherapy for substances found in food are sometimes given. Results vary.

I have talked a lot before about the fact that mast cell reactions are often the cumulative result of things that activate your mast cells. This means that if you do something that activates your mast cells before eating a trigger, your reaction may be worse. In some instances, you may only react if you do something irritating to your mast cells shortly before eating it. This doesn’t just happen to mast cell patients. There are many mentions in literature of allergy patients who only experience anaphylaxis to trigger foods if they have exercised shortly before eating.

This means that if you are able to control the experience of eating triggers, you may have better success. You may do better if you refrain from doing anything irritating to mast cells like exercising, getting too hot, or being in a stressful situation. Food temperature can play a role. Many patients react to foods that are too hot or too cold. How you time medications can help. If you eat in the window of time when your medications are most active, you might find that a trigger is less activating. Solids are harder to digest and cause more histamine release than liquids (even thick liquids) so what form your food takes can matter, too.

Additionally, if you are able to control your disease and inflammation, you may find yourself more tolerant of triggers overall. Patients who find that their symptoms are better controlled should discuss trials with their health care providers to see if they can try exposures to previous triggers.

I can tell you that I have personally had a lot of success with using an anti-IgE medication to help me regain foods I lost. I have one IgE food allergy (chicken egg whites) and have no plans to ever try to consume them without thorough cooking (I’m tolerant of well cooked egg whites.) However, I do have a spectacular amount of food triggers that cause reactions ranging in severity from flushing to anaphylactic shock. My severe food reactions largely resolved when I started anti-IgE injections a few months ago. I eat all kinds of things I used to react badly to. I can eat cookies. I can eat cherry pie. I can eat bread. I try not to push my luck with things that have are loaded in histamine. I will never try alcohol or anything fermented again.

Prior to taking the anti-IgE medication, I had some success with rotation diets in which I ate gradually increasing amounts of a trigger every four days. It didn’t really make the reactions stop but it did make them less severe, enough that I could reintroduce small amounts of some previous triggers into my diet. This happened after I had GI surgery that decreased my overall level of inflammation and mast cell reactivity.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

Food allergy series: FPIES (Part 1)

Food allergy series: FPIES (Part 2)

Food allergy series: Mast cell food reactions and the low histamine diet

Reintroduction of food to a child with SM

The Devil’s Arithmetic

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 46

Take home points: July 2015

Mast cell interactions with B and T cells
• Mast cells communicate with other cells by:
o Releasing chemicals to tell another cell to do something
o Other cells releasing chemicals to tell mast cells to do something
o Moving right up against other cells, which allows the cells to “talk”
• B cells are white blood cells that make antibodies and protect against infections.
o Mast cells can tell B cells to make IgE, an allergy antibody.
o When mast cells touch B cells, the mast cells can release IL-6 which tells B cells to live longer.
o Mast cells can tell B cells to make IgA, an antibody.
• T cells are white blood cells that have many functions.
o T cells and mast cells are found close together in many inflammatory conditions, like ulcerative colitis.
o Activated T cells can activate mast cells.
o Mast cells can tell T cells to proliferate and produce inflammatory molecules.
o A kind of T cell called Treg (T reg, like in regulatory) cells can make mast cells harder to activate and interfere with degranulation.

Mast cells in kidney disease
• Kidney disease is often not identified until 60-70% of functional kidney cells have been damaged beyond repair.
• Mast cells are rare in healthy kidneys.
o Damaged kidneys can have up to 60x the normal amount of mast cells.
o Mast cell count is not related to disease severity.
• Atopic disease, like atopic dermatitis and allergic asthma, is linked to idiopathic nephrotic disease, kidney disease of unknown origin.
o The nephrotic disease and atopic disease could be manifestations of the same overarching condition.
o In patients with both, IgE levels are high.
• Tryptase is elevated in some patients with kidney damage.
• Mast cells are responsible for bringing other inflammatory cells to the damaged kidney.
• Mast cells can cause fibrosis in kidneys.
• In some roles, mast cells can protect kidneys from damage.

Regulation of mast cells by IgE and stem cell factor (SCF)
• Mast cells are mostly regulated in two ways
• IgE binds to the IgE receptor (FceRI) on mast cells and activates them
o Activation by IgE results in degranulation and secretion of mediators
o IgE induces mediator release by affecting the amount of calcium inside mast cells
• Stem cell factor (SCF) binds to the CKIT receptor on mast cells and tells them to stay alive
o SCF also increases degranulation and production of cytokines
o SCF helps mast cells to adhere to other cells

Mast cells in vascular disease: Part 3
• Mast cells are involved in the formation and growth of aneurysms
• Activated mast cell populations are increased in vessels that rupture
• Chymase, a mast cell mediator, can degrade vessels and increase risk of rupture
• Leukotrienes contribute to aneurysm formation

The effects of cortisol on mast cells: Part 2 of 3

Glucocorticoids, like cortisol, can affect mast cells in many ways. As I discussed in my previous post, there are many ways for mast cells to release mediators when activated. In all of these pathways, there are many molecules involved that carry the signal, like people passing the Olympic torch. In mast cells, one of the molecules that suppresses inflammatory activation signal is called SLAP (yes, really).  Cortisol increases the amount of SLAP in mast cells so inflammatory activation signals are suppressed.

An important step in degranulation is changing the amount of calcium inside the cell and moving it to different parts of the cell. In some studies, glucocorticoids can affect this movement of calcium. Other studies have found that in some pathways, glucocorticoids don’t affect calcium movement, but instead interfere with things like the IgE receptor.

Cortisol is also thought to directly inhibit stem cell factor (SCF) binding to the CKIT receptor. When SCF binds to the CKIT receptor, this sends a signal to the mast cell to stay live.  This means that taking glucocorticoids can let mast cells die at the appropriate time. SCF also tells mast cells to go to inflamed spaces.  By blocking this signal, glucocorticoids suppress inflammation.

One of the ways that molecules carry a signal is by changing the next molecule in the pathway. A big way that cells changing molecules is by chopping off a piece of them called a phosphate group.  This is done by special enzymes called phosphatases.  Glucocorticoids affect the availability of phosphatases so they aren’t able to get to the right part of the cell to carry the signal.  When this happens, there is less activation and less histamine release.

Arachidonic acid is the molecule modified to make eicosanoids (leukotrienes, thromboxanes and prostaglandins.) Glucocorticoids directly interfere with the production of these molecules in multiple ways.  The first way is by interfering with COX-2, one of the enzymes that makes prostaglandins.  Another way is by preventing arachidonic acid from being released to a place where they can be turned into leukotrienes, thromboxanes and prostaglandins.  This occurs because glucocorticoids increase the amount of a powerful anti-inflammatory molecule called annexin-I.  Annexin-I inhibits the molecule that releases the arachidonic acid, called phospholipase A2.

Annexin-I was the subject of an important paper earlier this year. In trying to identify exactly how mast cell stabilizers like ketotifen and cromolyn work, the researchers discovered that treatment with mast cell stabilizers decreased degranulation and increased annexin-I made by mast cells.  They also found that glucocorticoids had the same effect.


Oppong E, et al. Molecular mechanisms of glucocorticoid action in mast cells. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology 2013: 380, 119-126.

Varghese R, et al. Association among stress, hypocortisolism, systemic inflammation and disease severity in chronic urticaria. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2016: 116, 344-348.

Zappia CD, et al. Effects of histamine H1 receptor signaling on glucocorticoid receptor activity. Role of canonical and non-canonical pathways. Scientific Reports 2015: 5.

Coutinho AE, Chapman KE. The anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects of glucocorticoids, recent developments and mechanistic insights. Mol Cell Endocrinol 2011: 335(1), 2-13.

Sinniah A, et al. The role of the Annexin-A1/FPR2 system in the regulation of mast cell degranulation provoked by compound 48/80 and in the inhibitory action of nedocromil. International Immunopharmacology 2016: 32, 87-95.

IgE-independent anaphylaxis; or, I haven’t been this excited on a Tuesday night in a long time

Mast cell patients are intimately familiar with the phenomenon of testing positive for allergies to things you know aren’t problems and negative for things that almost killed you.  If you ask any health care provider what the allergy antibody is, they will say it is IgE.  And for the most part, that is true.  But mast cell patients suffer reactions that do not demonstrate an IgE pathway to their allergies and anaphylaxis, and it is reason most of us suffer for years before being diagnosed correctly.

The idea that anaphylaxis is a function directly executed by IgE is a deeply ingrained part of western medicine.  In this model, IgE specific for an allergen binds to the allergen, and binds to the IgE receptor on mast cells and basophils, resulting in massive degranulation.

This is the classic model of anaphylaxis, with some creative license:

  1. You come into contact with something. Let’s say it’s Peanut, an anthropomorphic peanut.
  2. Immune cells called B cells think they once saw Peanut in a dark alley behind a bar. Peanut could have been waiting for a ride like any responsible peanut who has been drinking, but dark alley = shady = Peanut is trouble.
  3. The B cells make “Wanted!” posters with a picture of the peanut on it. Many, many posters.
  4. The B cells make lots of IgE to make sure every cell in the body sees the Wanted! posters. There will be nowhere for peanuts to hide. (I swear that as I was typing, I just heard the theme to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  I SWEAR.)
  5. Everyone knows that Peanut is a bad guy. They have seen the poster many times.  They do not need to see it again.  Do not show the poster again.  WE KNOW PEANUT IS BAD, IGE.  GO HOME, IGE, YOU’RE DRUNK.
  6. You guys know what happens next.  Peanut shows up.
  7. Someone remembers that IgE has been coming around the bar with the poster of Peanut. Peanut = bad guy.
  8. Everyone is hoping that if they tell IgE where Peanut is that IgE will leave them alone. No one really likes IgE but he is making such a big deal about Peanut and maybe Peanut is bad.  A little bad.  No one really knows but they know they do NOT want to deal with IgE if Peanut gets away.
  9. IgE and Peanut have a Western style gun duel at high noon. IgE captures Peanut by binding to him.
  10. While IgE is bound to Peanut, he also binds to a mast cell, which is like home base. IgE knows that Peanut is trouble and he is part of a Peanut gang and they are all bad, too.
  11. Mast cells deploy the tanks, duckboats, submarines, helicopters and fighter planes in the early allergy response to fight the Peanut gang. This causes massive inflammation with effects throughout the whole body.  Mediators released in the early response include histamine and tryptase.
  12. Mast cells start building more defenses and release them a little at a time later on in the late allergy response. Mediators released in the late response include prostaglandins and leukotrienes.

But we all know that it doesn’t always happen like this, because mast cell patients often have normal tryptase and IgE despite having a massive anaphylactic event, or even normal histamine or prostaglandins.

Last month, a comprehensive paper described alternative anaphylaxis pathways in mice that may be analogous to what is happening to mast cell patients having anaphylaxis that is not mediated by IgE.  That is to say, this pathway needs more research to know for sure if it is what is happening to us, but I have been watching the literature on this closely for a while and I100% think this is real.

There have now been multiple reports of the ability to induce anaphylaxis in mice while interfering with the IgE allergy pathway (either by not making IgE or the IgE receptor, or by treating the mice with anti-IgE, which blocks the IgE from binding to the receptor). Scientists found that by anaphylaxis could be mediated by IgG if the trigger was given intravenously. In particular, they were able to identify the murine IgG2b as the antibody subclass responsible.  In mice, IgG2b can cause anaphylaxis when IgE is not able to participate, at all.

The most important mediator in IgE anaphylaxis is histamine.  But the most important mediator in IgG anaphylaxis is platelet activating factor (PAF).  PAF levels have been linked with severity of anaphylaxis previously (I wrote a post about this around this time last year).  This could explain why many patients have normal tryptase, n-methylhistamine or histamine levels despite a very short amount of time elapsed from anaphylaxis. This is not a histamine show.  And maybe the reason so many mast cell patients cannot get complete relief despite taking huge doses of antihistamines is because histamine isn’t the PRIMARY issue.  (Author’s note: Please do not stop taking your antihistamines.  I love my antihistamines.  Just saying I think maybe there is something happening above histamine in these reactions.)

It’s also not just a mast cell show.  IgG can activate basophils, monocytes and macrophages, and neutrophils to release PAF.  Human neutrophils can mediate IgG dependent anaphylaxis when infused into mice.  So now we have a mechanism for anaphylaxis that is not IgE independent – it can also be mast cell independent.  Mind blowing. (Worth mentioning here that the phenomenon of mast cell independent anaphylaxis is not new or specific to IgG anaphylaxis – groups have found instances of mast cell independent anaphylaxis for almost thirty years.)

PAF levels are much higher in anaphylaxis patients than in control patients, and the enzyme that degrades PAF, called PAF acetylhydrolase, is much lower. It is important to note that binding at the IgE receptor can also produce PAF, but that also causes degranulation and release of histamine and tryptase, which seems to be absent in some patients.

To induce IgG mediated anaphylaxis, you need more allergen than for IgE anaphylaxis.  A lot more. 100-1000x more.  So in mice that have both IgE and IgG for peanut (not really peanut), doesn’t it seem like the IgE would react first to the peanut, and you would have IgE anaphylaxis?  But that’s not what happens.  What happens is that the IgG scoops up the peanut faster than the IgE can.  The IgG can block IgE anaphylaxis.  (WHAT UP MAST CELL PATIENTS DOING WAY BETTER ON IVIG?!?!)

IgG anaphylaxis in mice has been exclusively isolated to triggers administered intravenously.  The reason this fact matters is because of the frequency with which people (who don’t always have mast cell disease) have anaphylaxis to intravenous antibody treats, like IVIG, monoclonal antibodies for treating various diseases, or transfusions (which contain IgG antibodies). Treatments of this kind provide a huge influx of allergen. This pathway favors IgG anaphylaxis over IgE anaphylaxis because of how the IgG will scoop the allergen up (see previous paragraph).

As a final aside, there is also the curious fact that a group of patients with CVID (common variable immunodeficiency, a primary immunodeficiency disease) have a mutation that makes one of the IgG receptors found on cells like mast cells WAY more active.  The CVID patients with this mutation also have antibodies to IgA and experience anaphylaxis after IVIG.

I know I have gone on and on but this is the most exciting thing to happen to tryptase and histamine normal anaphylaxis patients in the last decade, at least.  There is SO much work that needs to be done.  Mouse and human mast cells are different.  Mouse and human IgG antibodies are different.  They could not induce food allergy in mice with an IgG dependent mechanism.  We need to pursue research on the role of PAF specifically in anaphylaxis patients with normal tryptase and histamine.

But now, when you tell your doctor that anaphylaxis is not always IgE dependent, you can give them a reference to a solid paper that fairly describes the findings, the caveats and the strengths of the current research on IgE independent anaphylaxis.  And it’s not just speculation. PEOPLE OUTSIDE OF MAST CELL DISEASE RESEARCH GROUPS ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THIS IS REAL.  IGE INDEPENDENT ANAPHYLAXIS IS REAL.


Someone hold my Epipens while I make my dog dance with me.


Finkelman FD, Khodoun MV, Strait R. Human IgE-independent systemic anaphylaxis. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2016.


The Devil’s Arithmetic

When I was in grad school, I took immunology. I still have my textbook and refer to it sometimes, my crowded notes in the margins. The chapter on allergy and anaphylaxis is highlighted in green, somehow aggressively bright after eleven years.

It’s kind of amusing to recall this time in my life, before every mast cell activation pathway had been hammered into my brain. There’s also some black humor in reading about how IgE activation is the allergy pathway. You know, THE allergy pathway. This book doesn’t cover any other pathways. As if you cannot possibly be allergic to something without IgE.

That’s the problem, of course. This is what most healthcare providers or science majors learn in school. They learn about allergy and anaphylaxis, but they learn about the textbook description which invariably refers to IgE mediated food anaphylaxis. They learn about peanut allergy.

I don’t have a peanut allergy. I literally don’t have a single food allergy that displays the hallmark swelling/closing airway that people expect. But I have major food allergies, some bad enough to require epinephrine, IV Benadryl, Pepcid, Solu Medrol, Zofran and IV fluids.

The problem is not just that I’m allergic to some foods. It’s that I’m not always allergic to the same foods as I was the day before. Or the same medications. Or the same environmental exposures. My reactions on a given day are the cumulative product of the amount of irritation my mast cells have experienced in the previous day or two. There is always a running tally in my mind.

There are a lot of analogies and models used to describe mast cell attacks both to patients and to people who don’t have them. I have always thought of it as a bank. You make deposits and you make withdrawals. Like this:

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume you have $100 in a bank account. Any activity that can cause mast cell activation has to be paid for. The cost is proportionate to the amount of activation. Getting a splinter: $2. Being hot: $10. Being in direct sunlight: $10. Standing up for 20 minutes while being hot in direct sunlight: $35. Cardiovascular exercise: $40. Arguing with your spouse: $60. Moderate pain experienced in your day to day life: $50. A painful medical procedure: $70. Mild cold: $40.

Some things are too costly to ever attempt.  Undercooked egg whites: $9000.  Massive bleach exposure: $7500.

You can make deposits into the bank with medications and physical changes. Getting enough sleep: $30. Wearing loose, comfortable clothes: $15. Doing orthostatic manuevers before standing up: $10. Taking baseline mast cell medications on your normal schedule: $50. Eating food that is warm but not hot: $15. Monitoring your exercise and stopping for breaks: $15. Wearing a cooling vest on a hot day: $20. Oral Benadryl: $25. IV Benadryl: $50. Steroids: $50.

So you have this running tally in your head all day long. When you start getting close to $100, you get stressed. You know you can’t afford to spend more than $100. Things that you could have done four hours ago safely are no longer safe. Things you could eat on a day spent relaxing at home inside with comfortable ambient temperature cannot be eaten if your apartment is too hot or if you are in a lot of pain.

You are constantly trying to avoid running out of dollars before you can get home and go to bed. Part of this is because you don’t want to trigger a physical reaction. Part of it is that this phenomenon – allergies as a function of circulating histamine/mast cell activation rather than IgE – is hard to explain briefly to people who don’t have this disease. So people will see you on a super crappy day only being able to eat one thing at a party and then four months later, when your body is much less inflamed, will see you eat three things at a party. And then it’s a thing, because these people invariably think that you are faking/being overdramatic as if somehow it is worth the effort to “pretend to have allergies.” WHO FUCKING DOES THAT?

Cost for being around someone who gives you shit for not always having the same restrictions: $75.

So everyday, you get $100. Except this is the US and our banks hate us so we have overdraft. This means that you can spend more money than you have but then they charge a steep fee and so the next day, you don’t have $100. You have maybe $30 dollars. After overspending, it can take a few days to get back to baseline.

Sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes you can sort of game your body into getting more than $100 out of a day. This is the purpose of premedication for procedures and surgery. This is the purpose of good sleep hygiene, eating safe foods, not getting stressed, taking medications appropriately and on a schedule. You can bank a little. Not as much as you can overdraft, but you can get ahead a little bit.

Today, I went to the supermarket to grab some things for lunch at work. They didn’t have organic apples that looked in decent shape. They had non-organic apples and my safe peanut butter/honey and my safe pretzel chips. I had to run through my entire day to determine how much physical activity and stress was likely to be in the rest of my day to figure out what I could (probably) safely eat for lunch.

It’s like this all day, every day. This math wouldn’t be hard except that it’s constant and unavoidable and controls my life.

The Sex Series – Part Four: Seminal allergy

Author’s note: This series is long and covers a number of topics other than vaginally penetrating sex, including male and female orgasms, reactions of the penis, testicles and prostate, anal sex, and pelvic floor dysfunction and pelvic pain.  The first several posts are about vaginally penetrating sex because this is what I get asked the most questions about.  It is not meant to be exclusive to anyone on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.

It is possible to be truly allergic to semen, although this is rare.  One of the hallmarks of this condition is that it is completely preventable with condom use.

Most patients react during or after their first experience with vaginal penetration by a penis resulting in ejaculation.  Each subsequent exposure generally causes a worsening reaction. However, it is possible to develop an allergy after a number of intercourse encounters. In studies, patients with seminal allergy are allergic to semen from multiple partners, although there are anecdotes about patients reacting to semen from a single partner and not only.

This type of allergy has been linked to IgE.  The testing for this sensitivity involves skin prick tests with seminal protein that produce wheal and flare response.  Semen specific IgE is often appreciable in the blood following exposure.  Some patients have type III and type IV hypersensitivity reactions to semen and symptoms can occur days after the exposure.

Like all other forms of allergy, the range of reactions is massive.  It can range from a low level itching to anaphylaxis requiring epinephrine.  Itching, burning, redness, swelling, pain, and blistering in the vagina have all been reported. Trouble breathing, cough, wheezing, GI symptoms, generalized hives, disseminated angioedema and full anaphylaxis can occur.  Anaphylaxis has been reported in 16 cases, with one case causing loss of consciousness.

Across studies, most patients have either a personal or family history of allergic conditions.  80% of patients in one study had a family history of atopic disease.  One study found that the onset of seminal allergy often coincides with genital system conditions or procedures like hysterectomy, IUD placement or removal, pregnancy and tubal ligation.  It is hypothesized that the disruption of the normal state of immune activity in the vagina by these activities can trigger seminal allergy, but this has not been proven.


Schlosser BJ. Contact dermatitis of the vulva. Dermatol Clin 2010: 28; 697-706.

Moraes PSA, Taketomi EA. Allergic vulvovaginitis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2000; 85: 253-267.

Chen WW, Baskin M. A 33-year-old woman with burning and blistering of perivaginal tissue following sexual intercourse. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2004; 93: 126-130.

Harlow BL, He W, Nguyen RHN. Allergic reactions and risk of vulvodynia. Ann Epidemiol 2009; 19: 771-777.

Liccardi G, et al. Intimate behavior and allergy: a narrative review. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2007; 99: 394-400.

Sonnex C. Genital allergy. Sex Transm Infect 2004; 80: 4-7.

How to activate mast cells: Receptors and ligands Master Table (part 1)

There are many receptors on mast cells.  The molecules that bind to these receptors are called ligands.  Different receptors can cause activation in different ways.

I am posting this table a little at a time as I anticipate getting a lot of questions about it.  I put this together for my own reference and I didn’t keep track of all sources.  I am hoping to go through the literature again and track this at some point.

These tables are not exhaustive, and I’ll add to them over time as I have the chance.

Receptor Ligand (molecules that bind to the receptor) Result
0X40 0X40 ligand Suppression of mast cell activation
A2A, A2B, A3 Adenosine At low concentration, degranulation:

histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin

De novo: IL-1b, IL-3, IL-4, IL-8, IL-13


At high concentration, inhibits FcεRI degranulation

C3α receptor C3α De novo:
IL-3, IL-4, IL-5 IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-13, TNF, GM-CSF, CCL2, CCL3, CCL5


Degranulation : histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin


Increases IgE and IgG dependent degranulation

C5α receptor C5α Degranulation : histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin


Cannabinoid CB2 receptor 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol, anandamide Suppression of mast cell activity
CCR1 CCL3 (MIP1α), CCL5 (RANTES) Degranulation : histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin
CCR3 CCL11 No degranulation
Increases IgE dependent secretion: IL-3, IL-4, IL-5 IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-13, TNF, GM-CSF, CCL2, CCL3, CCL5
CCR4 CCL2 (MCP-1) No degranulation, reléase of cytokines
CCR5 CCL3 (MIP1α), CCL5 (RANTES), CCL4 (MIP1β) No degranulation, reléase of cytokines
CD200 receptor CD200 (OX2) Inhibitory
Cd300α receptor Eosinophilic granule proteins Inhibitory
CD47 (integrin associated protein, IAP) Integrins Histamine secretion
CD48 E. coli, M. tuberculosis Degranulation : histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin


De novo : TNFa, IL-6

CD72 CD100 Inhibits CKIT activation
CKIT receptor tyrosine kinase (CD117) Stem cell factor De novo:
PGD2, leukotriene B4, leukotriene C4, PAF, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5 IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-13, TNF, GM-CSF, CCL2, CCL3, CCL5


Increased IgE dependent degranulation: histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin

Corticotropin/ corticotropin releasing hormone receptor CRH, urocortin Secretion of VEGF
CX3CL1 Fractalkine No degranulation
CX3CR1 Chemokines No degranulation, reléase of cytokines
Estrogen receptor Estrogens Increased IgE dependent degranulation: histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin
ETA Endothelin-1 Degranulation: Histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin, renin


De novo: TNFa, IL-6, VEGF, TGF-b1

ETB Endothelin-1 Unknown
FcαR (CD89) IgA Unknown
FcγRIIA, FcγRI, FcγRIIIA IgG/antigen Degranulation: Histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymase, heparin, chondroitin, renin


De novo:
PGD2, leukotriene B4, leukotriene C4, PAF, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5 IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-13, TNF, GM-CSF, CCL2, CCL3, CCL5

FcγRIIIB IgG/antigen Cannot induce activation
FcεRI IgE with or without antigen Degranulation: Histamine, tryptase, carboxypeptide, chymas, heparin, chondroitin, renin


De novo:
PGD2, leukotriene B4, leukotriene C4, PAF, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5 IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-13, TNF, GM-CSF, CCL2, CCL3, CCL5

Regulation of mast cells by IgE and stem cell factor (SCF)

Mast cells are regulated by two dominant mechanisms. The first is the allergic response via the high affinity IgE receptor. This receptor is called FcεRI. When an IgE molecule binds to this receptor, it triggers the release of calcium in pockets inside the cells, causes the cells to take up more calcium from outside the cell, and changes the cell membrane so that it can degranulate and secrete mediators. There are a number of other things that can affect the strength of the response triggered by FcεRI.

The second mechanism is the survival and activation response when stem cell factor (SCF) binds to the CKIT receptor (also called KIT). SCF is the primary growth and survival factor in non-neoplastic mast cells. In the absence of mast cell disease, it is absolutely required for survival. SCF also attracts mast cells and enhances degranulation from the FcεRI (IgE) receptor, production of cytokines and movement of mast cells from one place to another.

When SCF is increased in tissues, it increases the amount of mast cells there, how long they live and what roles they play. It also increases mast cell responsiveness. In some instances, SCF can directly cause degranulation with IgE involvement.

Despite understanding the importance of SCF, it is not well understood what happens after SCF binds to the CKIT receptor. We know that it increases survival and proliferation, but it’s not clear how. It is possible that the concentration of SCF or CKIT may play a role.

In tissues, mast cells often exist as a part of a membrane, and SCF is important in mast cell adhesion to other cells. When SCF is part of that membrane, it can increase histamine and eotaxin production in mast cells.

Monomeric IgE is IgE that is not bound to an allergen. In the presence of SCF, monomeric IgE can directly cause release of histamine, LTC4 and IL-8. It also makes mast cells more reactive.   When monomeric IgE binds to the FcεRI (IgE) receptor without SCF present, it causes production of IL-6 but not degranulation. However, IL-6 promotes mast cell survival.


Cruse, G., Bradding, P. Mast cells in airway dieases and institial lung disease. Eur J Pharmacol (2015).

River, K., Gilfillian, A.M. Molecular regulation of mast cell activation. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2006, 117, 1214-1225.

Gilfillian, A.M., Beaven, M.A. Regulation of mast cell responses in health and disease. Crit Rev Immunol 2011, 31, 475-529.


Mast cell inhibitory effects of some microorganisms

We have talked recently about how infections can activate mast cells and result in worsening of symptoms in mast cell patients. However, some organisms are actually able to decrease mast cell degranulation and secretion of mediators. Some of these organisms are highly pathogenic with dangerous infectious capabilities, but some are commensal bacteria that can be found in probiotics. These findings support a growing body of evidence that indicates that the changes in our commensal organisms in the last thirty years have contributed to the increased frequency of atopic disease in developed countries. Additionally, improved hygiene and public health have decreased the frequency of some infections, which may also contribute to allergic conditions.

Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria have been found to directly inhibit mast cell degranulation. Lactobacillus reduces both mast cell degranulation and cytokine secretion by reducing the number of IgE receptors on mast cell surface. Expression of IL-8 and TNF-a are actively decreased, while expression of the anti-inflammatory IL-10 is increased. Bifidobacterium bifidum inhibit IgE activation of mast cells in similar ways.

Salmonella typhimurium is a frequent cause of foodborne illness. In the US, it is estimated to cause 1,000,000 illness events annually, resulting in 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths. It causes diarrhea, fever and severe abdominal cramping that can last several days. A 2001 study found that Salmonella are able to avoid detection by neutrophils through inactivation of local mast cells. Specifically, Salmonella inject a protein known as SptP into the fluid inside mast cells. Following exposure to Salmonella, mast cells lost their ability to degranulate, even when exposed to IgE or strong antigens.

Yersinia pestis, which causes plague, can also suppress mast cell degranulation by injecting a similar protein called YopH. Several forms of commensal E. coli (which do not cause infection) have been found to exhibit similar suppression.

Some organisms can cause mast cells to lyse (burst) and thus die. Pseudomonas aeruginosa releases exotoxin A, which causes lysis of mast cells.

Infectious fungi, such as Aspergillus fumigatus, release a gliotoxin that suppresses mast cell degranulation as well as mediator secretion. Other fungal products that decrease mast cell activity include FK-506 from Streptomyces tsukubaensis and cyclosporine A from Tolypocladium inflatum. Cyclosporine A is often used as an immunosuppressive after organ transplant and also sees some use in treating inflammatory disorders.

Some nematodes (roundworms) are also able to block mast cell degranulation. Filarial nematodes release a molecule, ES-62, that blocks IgE activation of mast cells as well as inhibiting secretion of allergic inflammatory factors. This finding is notable as it provides a possible reason why allergic diseases occur less frequently in developing countries. Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic protozoan that causes toxoplasmosis, also prevented mast cell degranulation.



Choi, H.W., Brooking-Dixon, R., Neupane, S., Lee, C.-J., Miao, E.A., Staats, H.F., Abraham, S.N., 2013. Salmonella typhimurium impedes innate immunity with a mast-cell-suppressing protein tyrosine phosphatase, SptP. Immunity 39,1108–1120.

Cornelis, G.R., 2002. Yersinia type III secretion: send in the effectors. J. Cell Biol. 158, 401–408.

Magerl, M., Lammel, V., Siebenhaar, F., Zuberbier, T., Metz, M., Maurer, M., 2008. Non-pathogenic commensal Escherichia coli bacteria can inhibit degranulation of mast cells. Exp. Dermatol. 17, 427–435.

Harata, G., He, F., Takahashi, K., Hosono, A., Kawase, M., Kubota, A., Hiramatsu, M.,Kaminogawa, S., 2010. Bifidobacterium suppresses IgE-mediated degranulationof rat basophilic leukemia (RBL-2H3) cells. Microbiol. Immunol. 54, 54–57.

Forsythe, P., Wang, B., Khambati, I., Kunze, W.A., 2012. Systemic effects of ingested Lactobacillus rhamnosus: inhibition of mast cell membrane potassium (IKCa)current and degranulation. PLoS One 7, e41234.

Oksaharju, A., Kankainen, M., Kekkonen, R.A., Lindstedt, K.A., Kovanen, P.T., Korpela,R., Miettinen, M., 2011. Probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus downregulates FCER1and HRH4 expression in human mast cells. World J. Gastroenterol. 17, 750–759.

Wesolowski, J., Paumet, F., 2011. The impact of bacterial infection on mast celldegranulation. Immunol. Res. 51, 215–226.

Niide, O., Suzuki, Y., Yoshimaru, T., Inoue, T., Takayama, T., Ra, C., 2006. Fungal metabolite gliotoxin blocks mast cell activation by a calcium- and superoxide-dependent mechanism: implications for immunosuppressive activities. Clin.Immunol. 118, 108–116.

Melendez, A.J., Harnett, M.M., Pushparaj, P.N., Wong, W.S., Tay, H.K., McSharry, C.P.,Harnett, W., 2007. Inhibition of Fc epsilon RI-mediated mast cell responses by ES-62, a product of parasitic filarial nematodes. Nat. Med. 13, 1375–1381.

Hae Woong Choi, Soman N. Abraham. Mast cell mediator responses and their suppression by pathogenic and commensal microorganisms. Molecular Immunology 63 (2015) 74–79.