An allergy is an immune system response to a foreign substance that’s not typically harmful to your body. These foreign substances are called allergens. They can include certain foods, pollen, or pet dander.
Your immune system’s job is to keep you healthy by fighting harmful pathogens. It does this by attacking anything it thinks could put your body in danger. Depending on the allergen, this response may involve inflammation, sneezing, or a host of other symptoms.
Your immune system normally adjusts to your environment. For example, when your body encounters something like pet dander, it should realize it’s harmless. In people with dander allergies, the immune system perceives it as an outside invader threatening the body and attacks it.
Allergies are common. Several treatments can help you avoid your symptoms.
Types of allergies
Bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants are the most common stinging insects that cause an allergic reaction.
Non-stinging insects can also cause allergic reactions. The most common are cockroaches and the insect-like dust mite. Allergies to these two insects may be the most common cause of year-round allergy and asthma.
True allergies to drugs (medicines) occur in only a small number of people. Most drug reactions are not allergic, but are side effects of the properties of the medicine. A diagnosis of the cause of the drug reaction is usually based only upon the patient’s history and symptoms. Sometimes skin testing for drug allergy is also done.
There are different types of allergic reactions to foods. There are differences between IgE-mediated allergies, non-IgE mediated allergies and food intolerances.
Mold and mildew are fungi. Since fungi grow in so many places, both indoors and outdoors, allergic reactions can occur year round.
A latex allergy is an allergic reaction to natural rubber latex. Natural rubber latex gloves, balloons, condoms and other natural rubber products contain latex. An allergy to latex can be a serious health risk.
Pollen is one of the most common triggers of seasonal allergies. Many people know pollen allergy as “hay fever,” but experts usually refer to it as “seasonal allergic rhinitis.”
Allergies to pets with fur are common. It is important to know that an allergy-free (hypoallergenic) breed of dog or cat does not exist.
Allergies on skin
Skin allergies may be a sign or symptom of an allergy. They may also be the direct result of exposure to an allergen.
Types of skin allergies include:
Rashes. Areas of skin are irritated, red, or swollen, and can be painful or itchy.
Eczema. Patches of skin become inflamed and can itch and bleed.
Contact dermatitis. Red itchy patches of skin develop almost immediately after contact with an allergen.
Sore throat. Pharynx or throat is irritated or inflamed.
Hives. Red, itchy, and raised welts of various sizes and shapes develop on the surface of the skin.
Swollen eyes. Eyes may be watery or itchy and look “puffy.”
Itching. There’s irritation or inflammation in the skin.
Burning. Skin inflammation leads to discomfort and stinging sensations on the skin.
Causes of allergies
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. Pollen 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:
antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benedryl)
cromolyn sodium (Gastrocrom)
decongestants (Afrin, Suphedrine PE, Sudafed)
leukotriene modifiers (Singulair, Zyflo)
Singulair should only be prescribed if there are no other suitable treatment options. This is because it increases your risk
The best way to avoid allergies is to stay away from whatever triggers
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.
Natural remedies for allergies
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.
Allergy blood test
Allergy blood tests detect and measure the amount of allergen-specific antibodies in your blood. When you come into contact with an allergy trigger, known as an allergen, your body makes antibodies against it.
How allergies are diagnosed
Your doctor can diagnose allergies in several ways.
First, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. They’ll ask about anything unusual you may have eaten recently and any substances you may have come in contact with. For example, if you have a rash on your hands, your doctor may ask if you put on latex gloves recently.
Lastly, a blood test and skin test can confirm or diagnose allergens your doctor suspects you have.
Allergy skin tests are used to find out which substances cause a person to have an allergic reaction.
Identification and avoidance of the allergy triggers are the most important step in preventing allergic reactions and reducing symptoms.
Complications of allergies
People with allergies are at risk of developing complications that range from mild to potentially life-threatening.
One of the most serious allergic complications is anaphylaxis, which is commonly associated with allergies involving food, drugs like penicillin, and insect venom.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis may include:
A drop in blood pressure
Loss of consciousness
Severe shortness of breath
Rapid or weak pulse
Nausea or vomiting
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. It can cause seizures, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), shock, or respiratory distress. If you or someone around you has an anaphylactic reaction, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.
Asthma and allergies
If you have allergic asthma, your airways are extra sensitive to certain allergens. Once they get into your body, your immune system overreacts. The muscles around your airways tighten. The airways become inflamed and over time are flooded with thick mucus.
Whether you have allergic asthma or non-allergic asthma, the symptoms are generally the same. You’re likely to:
Be short of breath
Feel your chest get tight
Allergies vs. cold
Because they have similar symptoms, it can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and allergies. Here are a few ways to help figure out what’s causing your sneezing, sniffles and congestion.
What is a Cold?
You catch a cold when a cold virus makes its way into your respiratory tract and your immune system attacks it. The immune system can’t always tell the difference between allergies vs. a cold, which is why symptoms are similar. Colds are contagious.
Allergic cough is a term used to distinguish cough caused by allergies from cough caused by the common cold. Cough is usually accompanied by a runny nose and nasal congestion, and these symptoms occur simultaneously when a person is suffering from a common cold or allergic reaction. It is sometimes difficult to diagnose and treat a cough because patients are uncertain as to what exactly causes it. As a result, they may take incorrect medications and fail to seek proper medical attention.
Allergies and bronchitis
Allergic bronchitis is an illness wherein someone has severe allergies that lead to a bronchial immune system reaction.
Bronchitis occurs when there is an inflammation of the windpipe and airways within the lungs. Allergic bronchitis is an illness wherein someone has severe allergies that cause a bronchial immune system reaction. Doctors can sometimes distinguish it from regular bronchitis by looking for other allergic symptoms within the patient.
While bronchitis symptoms such as wheezing and difficulty breathing are similar to the symptoms of asthma, there are some important differences. Allergic bronchitis will often flare up due to seasonal allergies, so it’s often a very short-term condition. In cases in which a person has lingering bronchitis caused by allergies, he will sometimes have to have an allergy test therefore the doctor can figure out what is causing the problem.
Allergies and babies
While infants rarely suffer from environmental allergies, they can experience traditional allergy symptoms, like rashes and nasal congestion, from other causes. Learn the signs of infant allergies and how to monitor them as they get older.
As any parent can attest, when your young child comes down with a stuffy nose or a rash, it can be difficult to pinpoint the actual cause. Is it due to a cold, an allergy, or something else? Allergies are the most frequently reported chronic medical condition children experience and food allergies may affect as many as 8 percent of all children.
Living with allergies
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.