What is an allergy?
Allergies are among the most common chronic conditions worldwide. Allergy symptoms range from making you miserable to putting you at risk for life-threatening reactions.
According to the leading experts in allergy, an allergic reaction begins in the immune system. Our immune system protects us from invading organisms that can cause illness. If you have an allergy, your immune system mistakes an otherwise harmless substance as an invader. This substance is called an allergen. The immune system overreacts to the allergen by producing Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These antibodies travel to cells that release histamine and other chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.
Symptoms of allergies
An allergic reaction typically triggers symptoms in the nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, lining of the stomach or on the skin. For some people, allergies can also trigger symptoms of asthma. In the most serious cases, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis (an-a-fi-LAK-sis) can occur.
A number of different allergens are responsible for allergic reactions. The most common include:
• Insect stings
• Animal dander
Causes of allergies
Researchers aren’t exactly sure why the immune system causes an allergic reaction when a normally harmless foreign substance enters the body.
Allergies have a genetic component. This means parents can pass them down to their children. However, only a general susceptibility to allergic reaction is genetic. Specific allergies aren’t passed down. For instance, if your mother is allergic to shellfish, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be, too.
Common types of allergens include:
- Animal products. These include pet dander, dust mite waste, and cockroaches.
- Drugs. Penicillin and sulfa drugs are common triggers.
- Foods. Wheat, nuts, milk, shellfish, and egg allergies are common.
- Insect stings. These include bees, wasps, and mosquitoes.
- Mold. Airborne spores from mold can trigger a reaction.
- Plants. Pollens from grass, weeds, and trees, as well as resin from plants such as poison ivy and poison oak, are very common plant allergens.
- Other allergens. Latex, often found in latex gloves and condoms, and metals like nickel are also common allergens.
Seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever, are some of the most common allergies. These are caused by pollen released by plants. They cause:
- itchy eyes
- watery eyes
- runny nose
Food allergies are becoming more common.
If you or your child have allergy symptoms, an allergist / immunologist, often referred to as an allergist, can help with a diagnosis. An allergist has advanced training and experience to properly diagnose your condition and prescribe an allergy treatment and management plan to help you feel better and live better.
Allergy blood test
Your doctor may order a blood test. Your blood will be tested for the presence of allergy-causing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). These are cells that react to allergens. Your doctor will use a blood test to confirm a diagnosis if they’re worried about the potential for a severe allergic reaction.
Your doctor may also refer you to an allergist for testing and treatment. A skin test is a common type of allergy test carried out by an allergist.
During this test, your skin is pricked or scratched with small needles containing potential allergens. Your skin’s reaction is documented. If you’re allergic to a particular substance, your skin will become red and inflamed.
Different tests may be needed to diagnose all your potential allergies.
The best way to avoid allergies is to stay away from whatever triggers the reaction. If that’s not possible, there are treatment options available.
Allergy treatment often includes medications like antihistamines to control symptoms. The medication can be over the counter or prescription. What your doctor recommends depends on the severity of your allergies.
Allergy medications include:
- antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- loratadine (Claritin)
- cromolyn sodium (Gastrocrom)
- decongestants (Afrin, Suphedrine PE, Sudafed)
- leukotriene modifiers (Singular, Zyflo)
Many people opt for immunotherapy. This involves several injections over the course of a few years to help the body get used to your allergy. Successful immunotherapy can prevent allergy symptoms from returning.
If you have a severe, life-threatening allergy, carry an emergency epinephrine shot. The shot counters allergic reactions until medical help arrives. Common brands of this treatment include EpiPen and Twinject.
Some allergic responses are a medical emergency.
Natural remedies for allergies
Many natural remedies and supplements are marketed as a treatment and even a way to prevent allergies. Discuss these with your doctor before trying them. Some natural treatments may actually contain other allergens and make your symptoms worse.
For example, some dried teas use flowers and plants that are closely related to plants that might be causing you serious sneezing. The same is true for essential oils. Some people use these oils to relieve common symptoms of allergies, but essential oils still contain ingredients that can cause allergies.
Each type of allergy has a host of natural remedies that may help speed up recovery.
There’s no way to prevent allergies. But there are ways to prevent the symptoms from occurring. The best way to prevent allergy symptoms is to avoid the allergens that trigger them.
Avoidance is the most effective way to prevent food allergy symptoms. An elimination diet can help you determine the cause of your allergies so you know how to avoid them. To help you avoid food allergens, thoroughly read food labels and ask questions while dining out.
Preventing seasonal, contact, and other allergies comes down to knowing where the allergens are located and how to avoid them. If you’re allergic to dust, for example, you can help reduce symptoms by installing proper air filters in your home, getting your air ducts professionally cleaned, and dusting your home regularly.
Proper allergy testing can help you pinpoint your exact triggers, which makes them easier to avoid.
Complications of allergies
While you may think of allergies as those pesky sniffles and sneezes that come around every new season, some of these allergic reactions can actually be life-threatening.
Anaphylaxis, for example, is a serious reaction to the exposure of allergens. Most people associate anaphylaxis with food, but any allergen can cause the telltale signs:
- suddenly narrowed airways
- increased heart rate
- possible swelling of the tongue and mouth
Allergy symptoms can create many complications. Your doctor can help determine the cause of your symptoms as well as the difference between a sensitivity and a full-blown allergy. Your doctor can also teach you how to manage your allergy symptoms so that you can avoid the worst complications.
Living with allergies
Allergies are common and don’t have life-threatening consequences for most people. People who are at risk of anaphylaxis can learn how to manage their allergies and what to do in an emergency situation.
Most allergies are manageable with avoidance, medications, and lifestyle changes. Working with your doctor or allergist can help reduce any major complications and make life more enjoyable.