Overcoming Allergies

Allergies are something that many of us suffer from, and even take for granted. But learn why they should be taken seriously and what can be done to find relief.

If you suffer with hay fever, during certain times of the year you are acutely aware that the pollen count is high: your body signals this fact with the misery of swollen sinuses, a hacking cough, nasal drainage and red, itchy eyes.

Hay fever is only one of several types of allergies that can affect your health profoundly. But what causes these “immune system alarms” and what can be done to feel better?

Definition

Allergies can be caused by many substances, including food, medications, insect stings, and pollen to name a few. But they all have a similar cause: an over-reactive immune system.

Our immune systems are vigilant against any foreign invaders, and will react vigorously to repel potentially harmful substances such as viruses, bacteria, or toxins by producing antibodies. But in some people, the immune system reacts to substances that are not harmful such as pollen, dust mites, or pet dander (called “allergens”) in the same manner. This activates the antibody Immunoglobulin E, or IgE, to start a series of reactions that end with the release of histamine.

Histamines cause the blood vessels to dilate, increase mucous production, and also stimulate the production of tears, causing many of the symptoms that we associate with allergies (watery eyes and a runny nose).

There appears to be a genetic component to being predisposed to allergies. If one parent has allergies, then one out of three of their children will have allergies; but if both parents are allergic, then seven out of ten of their children will have allergies.

Allergy Symptoms

These will vary, with individuals. Some people suffer with hay fever (stuffed nasal passages with drainage and discharge, itching of the ears or the roof of the mouth).

Others deal with allergic skin reactions such as eczema (dry, flaky, skin that may have fluid filled bumps) or contact dermatitis (red, itchy skin such as occurs with exposure to poison ivy). Hives may occur, which are raised white bumps that are surrounded by a red, inflamed area.

If an allergy causes the muscles of the respiratory tract to tighten up and the breathing tubes to become inflamed, then asthma can occur, with a cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness or pain some of the symptoms.

The eyes can be affected by allergies, with reactions such as allergic conjunctivitis causing red, watery, itchy eyes and eyelids.

Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction (it has been described as an “immune system reaction gone wild”), and can be life-threatening. The symptoms can include tingling of the palms, soles of the feet, or lips; light-headedness; a metallic taste in the mouth, hives, bloating, chest tightness, anxiety, and generalized warmth or flushing of the skin. It can progress to difficulty breathing, seizures, irregular heart rhythms, and finally unconsciousness and shock in some cases.

These symptoms can occur anywhere from five minutes after exposure to an allergen to several hours after exposure; and in some individuals the symptoms go away and then return hours later. Anaphylaxis always needs immediate emergency medical attention because of the potential for life threatening symptoms. Some of the more common causes of anaphylaxis include certain foods (such as shellfish), medications, insect stings, or latex.

Types of Allergies

There are several categories of allergies, including:

Inhalation allergies are caused by inhaling airborne pollens from plants such as ragweed trees, or grass/weed.

Food allergies: These normally occur in young children and are often outgrown. The reaction can range from mild, with some itching or swelling of the lips or tongue, to moderate with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and hoarseness, to a severe reaction that can cause anaphylaxis and shock. Common triggers include wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, milk and seafood.

Chemical allergies can be triggered by exposure to certain chemicals such as cleaning agents, cosmetics, perfumes, hair spray, or soaps. Latex allergies are a type of chemical allergy caused by exposure to latex products such as gloves, condom, or other latex/rubber based items that occurs in health care workers and those with frequent exposure to latex rubber products.

Insect stings are caused by insects such as bees, hornets, wasps, or fire ant and can cause a reaction that ranges from itching and redness to anaphylaxis.

Medications can also cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Common medications that cause this include penicillin and sulfa drugs.

Diagnosis

A physician can diagnose allergies by using several methods. He will first take a complete medical history that includes any exposures to offending substances

Skin testing involves pricking the skin on the arm or back with a needle containing a solution that contains diluted concentrations of up to 40 to 50 allergens.

Blood tests can analyze a person’s blood for antibodies to certain allergens.

Food elimination involves eliminating certain foods from the diet, to determine which one(s) could be the cause of a food allergy.

Treatment

Some individuals get better over time from their allergies without treatment. This may be in part because over time, their immune system learns to tolerate the allergen, although in many cases, the allergy is dormant and could recur later in life.

Avoiding the allergen is one way to help relieve allergy symptoms. This can include running air conditioning, vacuuming frequently and cleaning out air filters, and staying indoors during peak pollen times.

If an animal is causing the allergy, you may need to make the difficult decision about whether to keep the pet or not. If you do keep your pet, then frequent bathing (twice a week), regular grooming, and making sure that your pet does not sleep in your bedroom can help.

Avoiding offending foods will stop the symptoms of food allergy.

Medication is helpful for some people in finding relief from symptoms.

There are many medicines used to treat allergies, and just a few are:

Antihistamines: this includes over-the counter preparations such as Benadryl (which can cause drowsiness), and newer prescription medications such as Claritin which don’t cause sleepiness in most people.

Antihistamines can also cause a dry mouth, dry eyes, constipation, and difficulty urinating. They can also cause restlessness, nervousness, or irritability in sensitive individuals. Before self-treating with over- the -counter medications, it is best to check with your doctor first, since certain infections such as sinusitis and rhinitis (common colds) can mimic the symptoms of an allergy.

Decongestants work by shrinking blood vessels, which helps to decrease the amount of congestion and fluid leakage in affected areas such as the nose. Some medications contain a combination of an antihistamine and a decongestant. While a nasal spray or drops can relieve congestion, they should not be used more than three or four days in a row, or a “rebound effect” can cause increased nasal congestion when a person stops using them.

Corticosteroids work by decreasing the inflammatory response. This reduces swelling and congestion in areas such as the nose and airways, and can relieve the symptoms of asthma. They can be taken in several forms, including by inhalation (for asthma) or as a nasal spray (rhinocort) to relieve nasal congestions. The nasal form does not have the rebound effect that decongestants do and can be safely used for a longer period of time.

Another treatment for allergies is immunization against allergens by injection with allergens (“allergy shots”). This is usually done for someone with severe allergies who has not responded to other forms of treatment. These shots are given weekly, with gradually increasing doses of the allergen to desensitize the person. This process can be lengthy, with a year or two of shots needed before knowing if the shots will help, and then up to seven years of shots to create long-lasting tolerance to the allergen. But for many people this regime of desensitization is worth relief from their allergies.

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