What Are Allergies?
An allergy is a reaction your body has when it comes into contact with a specific substance, called an allergen, to which you are overly sensitive. There are many different types of allergies and you can develop them through a variety of different exposures, such as through touch, breathing, eating or drinking the allergen. More than 80 percent of allergies are ‘indoor’ allergies or ‘outdoor’ allergies, also called seasonal allergies.
Why Allergies Happen
There are three factors involved in an allergic reaction. First, the allergen to which you are sensitive must be present in sufficient quantity to trigger a reaction. Second “mast cells” in your body release chemicals. Finally, there is immunoglobulin, or IgE. This is a type of protein that coats your mast cells and is made by your immune system to resist foreign substances.
When you have an allergic reaction, your immune system produces the IgE that is specifically associated with that particular allergen. This causes your mast cells to release chemicals, such as histamines and leukotrienes, that ultimately cause some of the allergic symptoms you may feel.
Common outdoor allergens include pollen particles from trees, plants, grass, or weeds. Outdoor allergies are also called seasonal allergies because you typically experience these allergies in the spring, late summer and fall, when plant growth is at its height, but they can occur year round in certain climates.
Indoor allergies are triggered when allergens like dust, mold or pet dander are inhaled or touched. Allergies to smoke, cockroaches and rats can also develop.
Common Allergy Symptoms
- Runny nose
- Nasal drip
- Swelling in the nose and around the eyes
- Itchy, watery eyes
In people with asthma, allergies can sometimes worsen their asthma as well. Prolonged episodes of allergic reactions may cause chronic congestion, changes in your sense of smell and taste, and swollen blue-colored skin underneath your eyes called “allergic shiners.”
In general, allergies will most likely develop during childhood, although they can begin at any age. Factors that increase your risk of developing allergies include:
- a family history of allergies and
- exposure to cigarette smoke during the first year of life
- firstborn status
- birth during the pollen season
- male sex
- early introduction of formula and food (before 4 to 6 months)
- early use of antibiotics and
- exposure to indoor allergens, such as animal dander.
To determine if you have indoor or outdoor allergies, your doctor will ask you about your medical hjistory and your family’s history: exam your skin, face, and lungs: and then perform a skin, breathing, and/or blood test.
Preventing Allergic Reactions
Since there is no cure for allergies, the easiest way to control them is to limit contact with the offending allergen:
- If you have outdoor allergies, try to stay indoors – especially on dry, windy days between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM – during the seasons when pollen is at its worst. Also try to avoid being outside at sunset when mold spores drop to the ground. You can also go online or listen to the radio for a daily report on pollen and mold counts.
- Wear clothing that is loose and light and then wash them with hot water after each use.
- When you are indoors, avoid rooms that may be more prone to mold, like basements or saunas. Reduce moisture in your kitchen and bathroom by fixing any leaks.
- Use dehumidifiers throughout the house and a high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter in your bedroom.
- Keep windows and doors closed during high pollen seasons and keep an air conditioner running.
- Keep your house clean. Change bedding and vacuum every week, and avoid carpeting, stuffed animals or feather bedding in your bedroom.
- Think twice about getting a pet, or if you have one, bathe it every week, brush it often and keep your pet in areas that aren’t carpeted. Having a hypoallergenic pet, which means a pet that produces less dander, may also limit allergic reactions.
- Avoid smoke.
- Avoid perfumes and cosmetics that seem to make symptoms worse.
Treatments for Allergies
- Antihistamines may help relive sneezing, itching and runny nose, as well as rashes or hives. They are most effective if you use them on a regular basis throughout allergy season.
- Decongestants can reduce the stuffiness you feel in your nose and chest, but probably won’t help you with itching or sneezing.
- Eye drops may help with bloodshot, watery or burning eyes.
- Corticosteroid creams and ointments can relieve skin rashes or itchiness. Corticosteroid nasal sprays can help reduce nasal congestion. If these don’t work, leukotriene inhibitors may also be an option.
- Oral corticosteroids may help reduce swelling.
- If medication doesn’t solve your allergy problems, your doctor may recommend a treatment called immunotherapy. This entails receiving regular injections of an allergen over the course of three to five years to ultimately desensitize you.
This information for educational purposes only; this information is not meant as medical advice. Always consult your doctor about your specific health condition.