Allergy is a type of disorder that is characterized by the extreme sensitivity of the immune system. Allergic reactions occur when the body is exposed to foreign substances. The immune system is responsible for the production of antibodies. These antibodies provide protection from many allergens that are found in the environment. Allergens are substances that can cause allergic reactions. They can be in form of microorganisms or contaminants found in the surroundings.

When the immune system is unable to fight these allergens, the body reacts to it and causes reactions like inflammation to respiratory issues. The severity of these reactions varies in different individuals. Allergic reactions range from mild irritation to life-threatening conditions also known as anaphylactic shocks. There are many foods that also cause allergies, and reactions can also occur when certain insects sting a person. Allergy is one of the forms of hypersensitivity that is technically known as Type 1 hypersensitivity more commonly called as immediate hypersensitivity.

Allergic reactions occur when a type of antibody known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE) increases in an individual’s immune system. At least five different kinds of immunoglobulins are produced by the immune system there are (IgM, IgG, IgE, IgD and IgA), but the main antibody that causes an allergic reaction is Immunoglobulin E. People produce specific symptoms in response to varying allergens due to poor immune system (IgE).

When antibodies come across an allergen that they cannot fight, the mast cells immediately release histamine in the body and it is the histamine which may lead to allergic reactions. Histamine can be released into any part of the body like the eyes, sinuses and nose. When the chemical histamine is released into the different parts reactions are seen.

For example when it is discharged into the lungs, it will cause inflammation and narrowing of the air passages and secrete thick mucus. When histamine is released into the skin tissues, it will lead to urticaria and rashes. If it is released in the digestive system, diarrhea and cramps can occur.

  • Statistics Related to Allergic Reactions

  • Causes and Symptoms

  • Diagnosis of Allergies

  • Treatment for Allergies

  • Myths and Facts

  • Frequently Asked Questions

Recent surveys show that the number of allergic reactions among Americans has increased in the recent years. Here are some of the commonly found reactions throughout United States.

  • Allergic rhinitis is said to affects about 11% of the total population.
  • About 3% of the United States population has asthma; research shows that African Americans are more prone to allergic asthma.
  • Atopic eczema is found in about 9% of the American population.
  • Deaths due to penicillin anaphylaxis are about 400. In a year, about 40 people die from insect venom. Allergy from peanuts is seen in almost 3% of the total United States population. Food allergy causes about 150 deaths per year; while latex allergy causes three deaths in a year.

The symptoms of allergic reactions vary for the different types of allergies. Here are some of the symptoms of the various forms of allergic reactions.

  • Hay Fever

It is one of the most common forms of allergy that occur in people. Hay fever is also known as allergic rhinitis. This allergy happens when allergens like animal dander, dust or pollen is inhaled. The symptoms of this allergy are congestion of nose, excess nasal discharge (rhinorrhea) and conjunctivitis.

  • Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis also called as eczema is an allergic reaction of the skin which is characterized by inflammation and itching of skin. People who suffer from this allergic reaction develop red and itchy skin that spreads throughout the body and makes it scaly and dry. Peeling and flaking of skin is also experienced.

  • Food Allergy

Allergies from foods are another common cause of reactions. These reactions are triggered when the immune systems flags certain proteins from foods as a foreign substance. When this happens allergic reactions occur which may be mild to severe. The symptoms of food allergies are urticaria; swelling of throat; face, tongue or lips; tingling sensation in the mouth and anaphylaxis.

  • Allergies by Insect Sting

The sting of certain insects like bees and ants may cause allergic reactions whose symptoms is anaphylaxis, edema (swelling) at the site of the sting; itching at the stung area; urticaria (hives) all over the body; shortness of breath and tightness in chest.

  • Allergies Due to Medicines

One of the side effects of many drugs is allergic reactions that can happen if a drug is taken without the prescription of the physician. The symptoms are skin itching, rashes, breathing problems, anaphylaxis, hives and swelling of face.

  • Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening allergic reaction that occurs mostly in all types of allergies. It is characterized lowering of blood pressure, rashes with tends to itch and swelling of the throat which usually cause breathing disorders and can cause death if not addressed immediately. The parts of the body that generally get affected because of anaphylactic shocks are nervous system, vasculature, gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin. The first-line treatment used in anaphylactic shock is the use of Epinephrine. Antihistamines may also be used as a treatment.

There are various tests that can be undertaken to find out which particular allergen is causing the allergy. It is not necessary that if a person is suffering from an allergy, it is going to continue over the lifetime. Allergies also go through dynamic changes as the time passes. Experts say that one must have regular testing done to know whether if the person is still having allergic reaction to a particular allergen.

It is suggested that people take test usually after a year to determining whether they allergic to the same allergen or if some other allergic reactions happen to different allergens. Children mostly outgrow their reactions from product like eggs, soy, wheat and milk. Allergic reactions to fish and peanuts may remain for the remainder of their lifetime. Here are some of the ways allergic reactions are diagnosed.

  • Skin Prick Test

It is also known as prick testing or puncture testing. In this method tiny pricks or punctures are made on the skin of the patient. These are made using a small metal or plastic device, syringes may also be used to prick or puncture the skin. These syringes or devices contain small quantities of allergens that commonly cause allergy. This test is normally carried out on the back or on the inside forearm.

After the testing is done, inflammation will be seen if the person is allergic to any particular allergen. The edema will be visible within half an hour of the conducting the test. The response to that specific substance could be minor skin reddening or a hive on the area of the puncture.

  • Patch Testing

This method of testing is similar to skin prick test but instead of puncturing the skin with allergens, adhesive patches are used to detect whether any reactions are occurring from particular allergens. These patches are treated with the common allergens that cause allergic reactions. The doctor then checks for reactions usually after 48 hours and then again after two or three days.

  • Blood Test

Testing of the blood is safer than the aforementioned two tests. This is because the skin is not exposed to allergens. When patch and prick testing is conducted, the physician has to take into account factors such as skin condition, age, current medicine use, pregnancy and diseases. But anyone can take blood tests irrespective of the factors mentioned. Even a single drop of blood is enough for taking the test. The blood sample is sent to a laboratory and checked for presence of specific IgE antibodies. If the incidence of these antibodies is higher, the person is more susceptible to get an allergic reaction.

Till now there has been no treatment that will cure allergies, but a lot of medicines are available that will help in easing the symptoms of the reactions caused by allergies. Some of the treatments are as follows:

  • Antihistamines

Antihistamines are being used for a long time as the treatment of allergies. They are available in different forms such as eye drops, nasal spray, oral liquid and pills. Many Antihistamine eye drops are available OTC (over the counter) and are mostly use to get relief from itchy eyes. Nasal sprays are mostly prescribed for allergies that are both year-long and seasonal.

Antihistamines are a class of drugs that prevents the substance histamine from binding to the receptors that cause swelling, redness and itchiness, thus reducing the allergic reactions. Antihistamines can be purchased over-the-counter or via a prescription. Side effect of the medicine is mostly just drowsiness, but it is important that you visit the doctor if any other unwanted side effects are felt.

Antihistamine medications are further classified into three subgroups, they are:

  • First-Generation Antihistamines, whose main drawback is that it causes drowsiness in majority of the people, they include drugs like diphenhydramine and chlorphenamine.
  • Second-Generation Antihistamines which do not cause drowsiness, they include medications such as loratadine and cetirizine.
  • Third-Generation Antihistamine has fewer adverse events than second-generation antihistamines and includes medicines like levocetirizine and fexofenadine.

Second and third generation antihistamines are generally prescribed by the doctor for the treatment of allergic reactions. The effect of giddiness caused by first generation antihistamines can be felt even the next day. The only time when first generation antihistamines are prescribed is when allergic reactions like itchy skin, causes sleeping troubles.

  • Decongestants

Decongestants are used to get relief from congestion and are usually prescribed with antihistamines for allergic reactions. They are available mainly in four forms pill form, eye drops, nasal spray and liquid. The important thing to remember is that eye drops and nasal sprays are to be used only for a short period of time because if they are used for longer periods the symptoms might actually get worse. This is not the case with liquids and pills as they can be taken for a longer time without any issues. However, it is prudent that you consult the medical expert before using any forms of decongestants.

When an allergic reaction occurs, the mucosal lining of nasal membranes gets inflamed causing blockage of upper respiratory tract. Sometimes swelling can also occur in the eye causing itchiness and redness. The main working of decongestants is it will shrink the inflamed blood vessels and nasal membranes that will provide relief from congestion of the nose and the redness that occurs in the eye. Long term use of decongestants can cause rise in the blood pressure levels, so they are not suggested to individuals suffering from hypertension.

  • Combinational Therapies

Many times people may have multiple symptoms of an allergy. During those times the physician may prescribe both decongestants and antihistamines to relieve the symptoms. These combinational drug therapies will help blocking the secretion of histamine and also prevent other allergy-causing chemicals from getting released in the body.

  • Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids or Glucocorticoids, more commonly known as steroids are suggested to reduce the inflammation caused a number of allergic reactions. They are helpful for the treatment and prevention of nasal blockage, runny nose and sneezing and could be seasonal or throughout the year. Steroids are also helpful in decreasing the swelling in many types of allergies. Corticosteroid medications block the secretion of chemicals like prostaglandins and histamines that could lead to allergic reactions and swelling.

These medicines can be availed in forms like liquids, pills, inhalers, nasal sprays, topical cream, eye drops. The allergic reactions in which corticosteroids can be helpful are asthma, many types of skin allergies, allergic conjunctivitis, year-round or seasonal allergies. However, it is the physician who will decide whether corticosteroids are to be used for a particular allergic reaction.

Corticosteroids are one of the most effective medicines for treating allergies. They can also be taken daily for prevention from any types of allergies, but again you should get proper guidance from the physician on how to take steroids safely. Also keep in mind that the effects of the medicine could take up to two weeks before they are felt.

Corticosteroids are also not prescribed to pregnant women as they pose a serious threat to the fetus. The side effects of oral corticosteroids are fluid retention, weight gain, high blood pressure. Some side effects that can occur because of long-term use are diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts, muscle weakness, growth suppression etc. The adverse events of inhaled corticosteroids are hoarseness, cough, fungal infections of mouth etc.

  • Bronchodilators

Short-acting bronchodilators are medicines that are used to alleviate the symptoms of asthma during an attack and should only be taken when they are prescribed. Long-acting bronchodilators are used for relieving asthma symptoms for up to 12 hours. This type of bronchodilator is mainly used by individuals who suffer from asthma attacks during the nighttime. They are also used for treatment of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Bronchodilators help in relaxing the muscle fibers that become tight around the respiratory tract. This helps in opening the air passages and lets in more air in thereby improving the breathing. These medications may also aid in clearing the mucus within the lungs. This can occur because as the air passage open up, the movement of the mucus can become more unrestricted and it easily be eliminated from the body.

Usually if one to four puffs are taken of an inhaler it will provide relief from chest tightness and wheezing which are associated with a mild asthma attack. In case of severe asthma attacks more puffs might be required to be taken. It is better that you first talk with your medical advisor on what are the best ways to get relief from an asthma attack.

Three types of bronchodilators are mostly used, they are:

  • Beta-2 Agonists are medicines which are generally breathed in using a hand-held inhaler. These drugs are mostly used for treating both asthma and COPD. The medicine is also available in syrup and tablet form. For severe symptoms Beta-2 agonists can also be delivered via a nebulizer (A dispenser that turns a liquid into a fine mist) or injected. These medicines work by stimulating beta-2 receptors causing the muscles that line the air passages to widen.
  • Anticholinergics are also called antimuscarinics and are typically inhaled. This medicine can also be given using a nebulizer if a severe attack happens. Anticholinergics are mostly used to treat symptoms of COPD. This medication blocks the cholinergic nerves and dilate the air passages.
  • Theophylline is a medicine that is usually taken as capsule or tablet form. It essentially works by reducing the swelling in the wind pipe. The medicine is not as effective as corticosteroids or other bronchodilators.
  • Mast Cell Stabilizers

Mast cell stabilizers are used for the treatment of mild to moderate swelling in the air passages and many other symptoms of allergy. This medicine works by preventing the histamine from getting released from the mast cells; these cells store and produce histamine. Mast cell stabilizers may have some anti-inflammatory effects, but usually do not the same effectiveness as steroids.

In many cases, these drugs are also utilized for the prevention of symptoms of exercise-induced asthma. In some instances, these medications are also given to people if they are going to be exposed to any allergen that they cannot avoid. These medicines can be availed in a number of forms namely nasal medications which treat clinical features of nasal allergies, eye drops for allergies of the eye and inhalers for asthma. Like some other allergy treatments, a mast cell stabilizer could also take some weeks before it starts showing its effects.

  • Leukotriene Modifiers

Leukotriene modifiers are mainly used for the treatment of nasal allergy symptoms and asthma. Leukotrienes are chemicals which are produced when an allergic reaction occurs. As the name suggests, Leukotriene modifiers help in blocking the effects of leukotrienes thereby relieving the symptoms of allergies. This drug may be given with other medications and is only availed when a medical advisor prescribes it.

The side effects of leukotriene modifiers rarely occur, but events like stomach upset, fever, heartburn, cough, stuffy nose, rashes, irritability, behavioral issues and headache may be experienced. One should quickly call their physician if these or any other side effects are felt.

  • OTC Products

Apart from these prescribed drugs there are some over-the-counter (OTC) products that are available which help treatment of allergies. Saltwater solution is one such OTC product. Also knows as saline, this product does not contain any medicine and is used to mainly provide relief from loosen mucus and mild congestion. It also prevents nasal crusting. Another such OTC product is artificial tears. Like saline, this product also does not contain any medicine. It is mainly used to treat red, watery, and itchy eyes.

  • Allergen Immunotherapy

Allergen Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that is used for building tolerance to allergens that are causing allergic reactions. There are three procedures which are used for this type of treatment. The dosage of these allergens increased every time they are administered.

  • Sublingual Immunotherapy Drops is treatment that is done by putting extracts of a particular allergen under the tongue.
  • Sublingual Immunotherapy Tablets are the same as the drops, but are in a tablet form. They are also placed under the tongue. Both sublingual therapies can be taken at home.
  • Subcutaneous Immunotherapy is a technique that involves administering allergen injection between the shoulder and the arm. These injections cannot be taken at home and must be taken in an environment that is medically controlled. Following the injection, the person is observed for a period of about 30 minutes. This is to see if any serious reaction occurs or not. This type of allergen immunotherapy is riskier than sublingual therapy as an anaphylactic reaction can occur.
  • Myth: Allergies in childhood may not occur in adulthood

Fact: It is not entirely true because many adult people may still have the allergy they had when they were younger. This is mostly in the case of asthma patients wherein some people may outgrow this allergy while some may still be facing the issue. Many food allergies that happen in children many not occur in adult because the gastrointestinal system of children may not be as developed as of adults. However, allergic reactions to foods such as shellfish and peanuts could be continuing through life.

  • Myth: People are allergic to animal fur

Fact: It is not the fur of pets like dogs and cats that is causing an allergy but the skin of the animal. When your pet rubs itself against the furniture or any other object, it loses the dead skin from its body. These small flakes of skin are known as dander and are not visible to the naked eye. When a person pets the animal or inhales the dander that is present in the air allergic reactions occur.

  • Myth: Iodine in shellfish is what causes allergies

Fact: This is a false perception by many people. If the iodine in shellfish would be causing allergies, then individuals would be have reactions from foods such eggs and milk because these are also rich in iodine. It is a specific protein component in shellfish which leads to allergic reactions, not iodine.

  • Myth: Residing in a certain geography helps in reducing allergic reactions

Fact:Allergic reactions can happen from any product. In most cases, people get reactions from certain pollens that are present in the place they reside in. If you plan to move to some other area because of this factor, it may or may not be helpful because there might be some other allergen in that location which could lead to an allergic reaction.

  • Myth: Eating organic (natural) foods will not cause allergies

Fact: If you think that eating organic foods will help in reduction of allergic reactions then you are wrong. In fact about 90% of allergic reactions are from organic products like peanuts, soybeans, cow milk, wheat, eggs and fish. The reactions from these foods also occur because of specific proteins present in them.

  • Myth: Allergies are not fatal

Fact: It may not be a common occurrence but sometimes death can happen because of an allergic reaction. Anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening reaction to an allergen. It could cause inflammation of the throat, narrow the airways of lungs and lower the blood pressure which makes breathing difficult and cause death. If a person has a reaction to many allergens or has had severe reactions in the past, must always carry a syringe of epinephrine if any serious allergic reactions occur again.

  • What types of pollen cause allergies?

Pollen is a fine powder that is released by the plants into the air. The most commonly occurring allergic reactions happen from pollens that are present in the air. Some common plant allergens are weeds like tumbleweed, lamb’s quarters, English plantain, redroot pigweed, sagebrush, ragweed and goosefoot.

Grasses such as salt grass, Johnson grass, fescue sweet vernal grass, Kentucky blue grass, orchard grass, timothy grass, perennial rye, redtop grass, Bermuda grass, and velvet grass also cause allergies.

Deciduous trees that cause allergies are cypress, ash, birch, oak, maple, elm, alder, juniper, hazel, pecan, hickory, cedar, box mountain cedar and sequoia trees.

  • What are the differences between common cold and allergies?

The symptoms of common cold and allergies are mostly similar; there are just a few points that make both different such as:

  • Incidence of symptoms: When a person has an allergic reaction, symptoms congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue all occur at one time. While in common cold these symptoms usually occur one after the other.
  • Duration: Common cold generally lasts for not more than 10 days, but allergies tend to continue till the time the individual is exposed to the allergen. Allergies usually subside only after the allergen is gotten rid of.
  • Nasal discharge: The mucus that is discharged from the nose is generally yellowish in appearance in case of common cold. The mucus discharge in allergies is watery and thin.
  • Occurrence of fever: Fever may accompany cold but not allergic reactions.
  • Season: Common cold usually happens in winter, while allergies tend to mostly occur in fall and spring season during which time the plants are pollinating.

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