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Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to typically harmless foreign particles (allergens) in the body. The symptoms that are a result of the immune system’s overreaction range from mild discomfort to life-threatening emergencies depending on the trigger and the allergic person’s individual response.
According the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, allergies are widespread in all age groups in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control reports that as of the last census, 2010, allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. with an annual cost in excess of $18 billion. More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year.
The most common types of allergies are:
Food allergies. The list of food allergens as reported by Food Allergy Research and Education Incorporated, a non-profit organization, includes:
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology also lists:
Environmental allergies. Some of these are referred to as seasonal allergies because they are triggered by plant pollen at various times of the year. Others can occur year round. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences lists the following as common environmental allergens:
Insect allergies. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology lists the following stinging insects as potential allergens:
Allergies to pets and other animals. Many people are allergic to the dander or saliva of household pets. Cat and dog dander are among the most common pet allergies, though smaller furry animals, such as hamsters, guinea pigs, and other rodents, can also serve as allergens.
Contact allergies. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America lists the following substances and materials as potential allergens:
Allergies to medications. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology lists the following as common medication allergens:
If your immune system perceives a substance as a threat to your health, a team of cells, specifically IgE type 1 hypersensitive immune response cells—releases mast cells into the system to create antibodies that remain ready to attack every time you encounter the substance. The antibodies release a chemical called histamine, which helps activate the body’s defense mechanisms against potentially harmful foreign substances – fever, sneezing, coughing, etc. In the case of allergies, this immune response is triggered by a substance that is not usually harmful (i.e. pollen, dust, animal dander). The body releases histamine to fight against the foreign substance and in turn causes allergy symptoms – runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, wheezing, etc.
Medical experts are not sure of the exact cause of the abnormal immune response, but they have identified several risk factors that may influence the development of allergies.
The following factors may put you at increased risk of developing allergies:
Your doctor will use one or a combination of the following diagnostic techniques to determine whether or not you have allergies:
Different types of allergens can cause different symptoms. Though not all people with allergies will have the same reactions, here are some common symptoms of allergic reactions:
Allergies to pets
Allergies to medications
Food allergies. According to an article published in the journal Asthma, Allergy & Clinical Immunology, the prognosis for food allergies “is complex and dependent on the particular food”. The authors conclude that and increasing number of children are outgrowing egg and milk allergies as they reach adolescence but that allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are more persistent, and “lifelong in most cases”.
Environmental allergies. Many children outgrow environmental allergies, especially allergic rhinitis (hay fever), but the condition sometimes comes back in adulthood. People who develop environmental allergies after the age of about 20 tend to have the allergies in middle age and often well beyond.
Insect allergies. Allergic reactions to stinging insects are almost always lifelong. People who are affected need to carry epinephrine injectors such as EpiPens at all times for use as an antidote to life-threatening anaphylaxis. (See the section on Causes as well as the section on Treatments and Medications.)
Allergies to pets. Some children do outgrow allergies to animals. Also, some adults find that their symptoms lessen or disappear over time. However in most, cases pet allergies are persistent and require lifelong management. (See the section on Living With Allergies.)
Contact allergies. Reactions to substances such as cosmetics and cleaning agents may fluctuate over time and eventually disappear altogether – though not in all cases. However, an allergy to latex appears to be lifelong and can be life-threatening. Be sure to tell your doctor about your latex allergy, especially if you are scheduled for surgery. You can be assigned to a latex-free operating room. In addition, always carry an EpiPen. (See above under Insect Allergies.)
Allergies to medications. These are almost always lifelong and can be life-threatening. Tell your doctor if you have an allergy to an antibiotic such as penicillin. You may also be allergic to other medications in the same class of drugs. Also let your doctor know if you are allergic to iodine, which is used in dyes for some screening tests.
ALLERGIES TO PETS
ALLERGIES TO MEDICATIONS
Since allergies are so common and there are an almost infinite number of possible allergens, allergies are not screened for in primary care practices. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with allergies, schedule an appointment with your doctor. He or she will be able to conduct the appropriate diagnostic tests and/or refer you to an allergist or allergy specialist for further testing.
The root causes of allergies are unknown, so prevention of allergies is not typically possible. There is research into prevention of certain food allergies via introduction of the allergen in minute amounts, under the guidance of an allergist. This new form of treatment is reserved for those with a family history of life-threatening allergies, like to peanuts. You can, however, avoid triggering allergens and seek treatment to lessen the severity of your allergy attacks.
The most effective way to treat allergies is to avoid the allergen. Since this can sometimes be difficult or impossible, other treatments are available. Treatments may include:
With immunotherapy, very small amounts of allergens are injected over weeks, months, or even years. The goal is to make your body’s immune system less sensitive to those allergens.
There’s another, similar type of treatment called sublingual immunotherapy. It involves placing small amounts of allergens under the tongue. This treatment is more popular in Europe. While it has shown to reduce symptoms in some studies, more research is needed.
If you are diagnosed with allergic rhinitis, follow your doctor’s instructions.
If you choose to use any herbs or supplements, remember to let your doctor and your pharmacist know. Prescriptions drugs and your alternative treatments may have adverse interactions with each other. Also, a recent study found that many herbal supplements contain fillers and some have none of the herbs and other ingredients lists on the labels. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal and other “natural” supplements.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recommends the following alternative treatments for allergy symptoms:
Though there is no cure for allergies, there are things that you can do to help manage your symptoms:
If you have severe allergies and risk going into anaphylactic shock during an attack, call emergency services (911) if you experience any of the following symptoms of anaphylaxis:
You should also call your doctor if:
Before your visit to your Primary Care Physician for an initial exam and then again after you schedule an appointment with an allergist, write down all your questions and concerns. Bring them with you as a printout or on your tablet. Also, consider asking a friend or family member to come along and help you get all your questions answered in case you start feeling flustered or embarrassed and forget a key issue you wanted to discuss.
Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor:
May is National Asthma and Allergy Month, and May 11th to 17th is Food Allergy Awareness Week.
For more information on allergies and resources for allergy sufferers, visit:
For the latest research and information on the asthmatic component of allergies, visit:
For the latest research on food allergies and for resources for food allergy sufferers, visit:
For more information on the role of environmental factors in allergies, visit:
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