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Allergies

What are Allergies?

There are many different contributors that cause allergies, and these allergies can be triggered by just about any substance within a persons’ immediate environment. But what is an allergy?

An allergy is any abnormal reaction of the body’s immune system to a specific substance referred to as an allergen. The reaction occurs when what triggers the allergic reaction is present in the persons’ environment. An allergic episode can be mild, causing skin redness, itching, or hives, but there are times when allergic reactions can be fatal.

1/5th of Americans suffer with some form of allergy. There are several prominent allergens including:

Pollens, which are ranked as the number on allergy trigger. Pollen is produced by flowering plants, trees, and grasses and is transported through the air. When these pollens are inhaled, a reaction is caused for those who are allergic.

Animal hair is the second leading allergy trigger, generated from the oil animals secrete to coat their hair.

Dust mites cannot be seen by the naked eye, and the proteins their waste products contain can cause allergic reactions.

Insect bites. When an insect bites, proteins are left on the skin which can be an allergy trigger for some. The reaction can be mild with swelling or itching, but for some people it is life threatening.

Mold develops in dark and on damp places. When touched or inhaled, mold spores irritate a person’s air tract and cause an allergic reaction.

Food, for some, can be the cause of an allergic reaction. The body can produce antibodies to foodstuffs the person is allergic to. When that food is introduced into the system, the antibodies release histamines that trigger the allergic reaction.

Latex is made from the rubber tree and the sap contains proteins that can be an allergy trigger. For those who are allergic to latex, the reaction is immediate.

Medicine can be an allergy trigger for some; particularly with salicylates and penicillin. Upon ingestion, the allergic reaction is triggered.

Perfume, or the chemicals contained in it, can cause an allergic reaction for some as it irritates the lining of the nose and causes an adverse reaction.

Cockroaches, and the protein in their feces, contain an irritant that can cause an allergic reaction.

 Symptoms of Allergies

  • Allergy symptoms vary, but may include:
  • Breathing problems
  • Burning, tearing, or itchy eyes
  • Conjunctivitis (red, swollen eyes)
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Hives
  • Itching of the nose, mouth, throat, skin, or any other area
  • Runny nose
  • Skin rashes
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

What Causes Allergies?

Allergies are relatively common and the environment and genetics can play a role. In a person with allergies, there is an oversensitive immune response. When the immune system recognizes an allergen, it releases chemicals like histamines to fight the allergen. This causes rashes, hives, muscle spasms, swelling, and/or mucus production that varies from person to person.

It is rare to have a specific inherited allergy. However, if both parents have an allergy, there is a strong probability the child or children will have allergies. The chance of a child developing allergies is significantly higher if the mother has allergies.

How to Diagnose Allergies

In general, a health care provider will ask questions and perform a physical exam to diagnose an allergy. The most common form of testing is the skin test; and the prick test is one most frequently used. The prick test involves placing a small amount of the suspected allergy-causing substance on the skin, slightly pricking the area so the substance goes under the skin, and watching for a reaction.

How to Treat Allergies

Epinephrine is used to address severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) which can save a life when given right away. There are a variety of medications available to prevent and treat allergies. Symptoms, age, and overall health will determine which medication the physician recommends.

Medications that can be used to treat allergies include antihistamines, corticosteroids, decongestants and other medications. For those with severe allergic symptoms, corticosteroid injections or pills may be recommended.

Leukotriene inhibitors are medicines that block the substance that triggers an allergic reaction. (Accolate) or Zafirlukast and (Singulair)or montelukast are approved for those with indoor and outdoor allergies.

Allergy shots are sometimes recommended if the allergen cannot be avoided and/or symptomatology is difficult to control. Regular injections of the allergen are given, and with each dose, more is given than the previous dose until a maximum dose is reached.

Prevention and Maintenance of Allergies

For most, there is no fail safe and no determinant way to prevent allergies from developing. A number of herbal remedies currently in the market have not shown clinically significant results in preventing allergies from developing.
Once an allergy has developed, carefully avoiding the allergen trigger and treating the allergies can prevent allergic reactions in the future.

 

References:

Wallace DV, Dykewicz MS, Bernstein DI, Blessing-Moore J, Cox L, Khan DA, et al. The diagnosis and management of rhinitis: an updated practice parameter. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2008 Aug:122(2).

Kurowski K, Boxer RW. Food allergies: detection and management. American Family Physician. 2008 June:77(12).

Bielory L, Friedlaender MH. Allergic conjunctivitis. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2008 Feb;28(1):43-58, vi.