Everything You Need to Know About Allergies
What exactly is an allergy?
In simplest terms, it’s when your immune system mistakenly believes that something harmless that has touched or entered your body is dangerous, and goes on the attack. Let’s explain. Immune cells in your bloodstream called lymphocytes constantly scan your body for bacteria, viruses, pollens, chemicals, and other microscopic organisms that might cause harm. Most foreign particles are usually (and correctly) determined to be harmless. But once the system detects something it deems harmful, two things occur: First, a ‘memory’ is created so the immune system will know to attack it if it returns again; then, it sets out to destroy the invader. The attack is no different from how your body attacks a cold or flu germ, and the byproducts are the same as well: inflammation, mucus, coughing, and watery eyes.
Allergies occur when your body tags nondangerous items as dangerous. The vast majority of allergens are airborne, and include dust, pollen, mold, and pet dander. When they enter your body, your immune system responds by going on the offensive.
Are allergies and asthma the same thing?
Although they seem to go together, they are different diseases, though on the same continuum, with asthma at the far end, and allergies somewhere in the middle. Asthma is a chronic lung disease in which airways react to some trigger by becoming inflammed, filling up with mucus, and getting squeezed by the muscles that surround them.
The result: coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. An allergy can trigger an asthma attack, but so can other things. Asthma is the more serious condition, since an attack can dangerously restrict your breathing capability. Roughly 500 Canadians die every year from asthma-related causes. Allergies tend to create cold-like symptoms
that are annoying, but usually less dangerous.
Allergy symptoms, which depend on the substance involved, can affect your airways, sinuses and nasal passages, skin, and digestive system. Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe. In some severe cases, allergies can trigger a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.
Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, can cause:
- Itching of the nose, eyes or roof of the mouth
- Runny, stuffy nose
- Watery, red or swollen eyes (conjunctivitis)
A food allergy can cause:
- Tingling in the mouth
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, face or throat
An insect sting allergy can cause:
- A large area of swelling (edema) at the sting site
- Itching or hives all over the body
- Cough, chest tightness, wheezing or shortness of breath
A drug allergy can cause:
- Itchy skin
- Facial swelling
Common Food Allergens
Up to 2 million, or 8%, of kids in the United States are affected by food allergies. Eight foods account for most of those: cow’s milk, eggs, fish and shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, soy, and wheat.
Cow’s milk (or cow’s milk protein). Between 2% and 3% of children younger than 3 years old are allergic to the proteins found in cow’s milk and cow’s milk-based formulas. Most formulas are cow’s milk-based. Milk proteins also can be a hidden ingredient in prepared foods. Many kids outgrow milk allergies.
Eggs. Egg allergy can be a challenge for parents. Eggs are used in many of the foods kids eat — and in many cases they’re “hidden” ingredients. Kids tend to outgrow egg allergies as they get older.
Fish and shellfish. These allergies are some of the more common adult food allergies and ones that people usually don’t outgrow. Fish and shellfish are from different families of food, so having an allergy to one does not necessarily mean someone will be allergic to the other.
Peanuts and tree nuts. Peanut allergies are on the rise, and as are allergies to tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and cashews. Most people do not outgrow peanut or tree nut allergies.
Soy. Soy allergy is more common among babies than older kids. Many infants who are allergic to cow’s milk are also allergic to the protein in soy formulas. Soy proteins are often a hidden ingredient in prepared foods.
Wheat. Wheat proteins are found in many foods, and some are more obvious than others. Although wheat allergy is often confused with celiac disease, there is a difference. Celiac disease is a sensitivity to gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley). But a wheat allergy can do more than make a person feel ill — like other food allergies, it also can cause a life-threatening reaction.
Other Common Allergens
Insect allergy. For most kids, being stung by an insect means swelling, redness, and itching at the site of the bite. But for those with insect venom allergy, an insect sting can cause more serious symptoms.
Medicines. Antibiotics are the most common type of medicines that cause allergic reactions. Many other others, including over-the-counter medicines (those you can buy without a prescription), also can cause allergic reactions.
Chemicals. Some cosmetics or laundry detergents can make people break out in hives. Usually, this is because someone has a reaction to the chemicals in these products, though it may not always be an allergic reaction. Dyes, household cleaners, and pesticides used on lawns or plants also can cause allergic reactions in some people.
- Allergy immunotherapy (allergy shots and tablets) work by building your tolerance to substances that trigger your allergy symptoms.
- Allergy tablets are currently available in the United States for dust mite, grass pollen and/or short ragweed pollen induced allergies.
- Ask your allergist if you could benefit from receiving the tablets.
- Most adverse reactions to allergy immunotherapy are mild. However because serious reactions can occur, it is safest to administer the first dose of allergy tablets in an allergist’s office. An epinephrine autoinjector should also be prescribed to patients receiving the tablets.
The doctor will ask the patient questions regarding symptoms, when they occur, how often, and what seems to cause them. They will also ask the person with symptoms whether there is a family history of allergies, and if other household members have allergies.
The doctor will either recommend some tests to find out which allergen is causing symptoms or refer the patient to a specialist.
Below are some examples of allergy tests:
- Blood test: This measures the level of IgE antibodies released by the immune system. This test is sometimes called the radioallergosorbent test (RAST)
- Skin prick test: This is also known as puncture testing or prick testing. The skin is pricked with a small amount of a possible allergen. If the skin reacts and becomes itchy, red, and swollen, it may mean an allergy is present.
- Patch test: A patch test can identify eczema. Special metal discs with very small amounts of a suspected allergen are taped onto the individual’s back. The doctor checks for a skin reaction 48 hours later, and then again after a couple of days.
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