Allergies

By:    Published: September 27, 2012

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Allergies affect millions of Americans every day. While some people have an easy time avoiding the allergens that affect them, others can’t help but be exposed on almost a daily basis. This common condition is something that can often be effectively treated, but it’s important to understand what to do if a severe allergic reaction occurs.

Definition

Allergies are a condition that occurs when the immune system mistakenly identifies a substance as harmful to the body. The body’s reaction to that substance produces a series of unpleasant symptoms. In some cases, the allergic reactions are severe, leading to breathing problems or serious skin rashes.

Types

There are several types of allergies. The most common are:

  • Food allergies: This type of allergy occurs when the body has misidentified certain foods as harmful. Some common food allergens include peanuts, shellfish, soy, wheat, milk and eggs.
  • Drug allergies: This type of allergy occurs when the body misidentifies certain medications as harmful. Penicillin and antibiotics are the most common cause of drug allergies. Other common drug allergens are anticonvulsants, insulin preparations, iodinated x-ray contrast dyes and sulfa drugs.
  • Seasonal allergies: Also known as hay fever, this type of allergy occurs when the body misidentifies pollen or mold particles as harmful. Because more of these particles are released during certain periods of the year, symptoms tend to develop or worsen seasonally.
  • Allergic dermatitis: This type of allergy occurs when the body misidentifies certain substances that are applied to or come into contact with the skin as harmful. The most common allergens for this condition are chemicals such as acids or alkaline substances found in soaps, detergents and fabric softeners. Other common allergens in this category include pesticides, hair dyes, nail polish, shampoos, fragrances in perfumes or moisturizers, topical antibiotics, adhesives, rubber, latex and metals found in jewelry and other objects. Poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak and other plant sensitivities also fall into this category.
  • Insect sting allergy: This type of allergy occurs when the body misidentifies the venom from an insect sting as harmful. While many people have a mild allergic response to this occurrence (for example, the slight redness, swelling and itchiness from a mosquito bite), others have more severe insect sting allergies which may produce very dangerous symptoms. Stings from bees, wasps, hornets and fire ants are common triggers for this allergic response.

Symptoms

Allergies can produce a wide variety of symptoms, including:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Itchy nose, throat, mouth, eyes or skin
  • Burning or watery eyes
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Skin rashes
  • Skin swelling
  • Hives

The types of symptoms a person experiences often is related to the allergen to which they have been exposed. For example, when someone eats a food that they are allergic to, they will usually experience symptoms having to do with their digestive system, such as stomach cramps or diarrhea. Meanwhile, allergens that can be breathed in result in breathing, nose and throat problems. Allergens that touch the skin usually lead to hives, itching or rashes.

For people with more severe allergies (usually those relating to foods or insect bites), a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis may occur. This condition requires emergency medical care and may cause the following symptoms:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Swelling airways
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Skin rash
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Causes And Risk Factors

Allergies are caused by the immune system mistakenly identifying a substance as harmful to the body. As a response, the body releases antibodies which cause the unpleasant symptoms associated with the condition.

There are a few risk factors which increase a person’s chances of developing allergies, including:

  • Being a child: Children are more likely to develop allergies than adults. In some cases, children will outgrow an allergy or the allergy will go away and then come back sometime in the future.
  • Having asthma: Those with asthma are more likely to develop an allergy.
  • Having allergies: Those who have an allergy to something are more likely to develop other allergies.
  • Having a family history of asthma or allergies: When a family member has an allergy or asthma, it increases an individual’s risk for developing an allergic condition.

Prevention

The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid the allergen to which you are sensitive. That could mean different things for different people depending on their allergies. Those with seasonal allergies may use special air filters to reduce allergens in the air, for example. Meanwhile, those with insect sting allergies may want to wear clothing that covers more of their skin when outdoors.

Treatment

Many allergies are effectively treated with medications like corticosteroids, decongestants, antihistamines, leukotriene modifiers and cromolyn sodium. Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available for allergy treatment, so ask a doctor which drugs will work best for you.

In some cases, immunotherapy can be administered via allergy shots. This series of injections may be able to reduce the severity of an allergic condition over a number of years.

Finally, those with severe allergies often have to carry an emergency epinephrine shot with them. If an allergic reaction should occur, this injection can be used to reduce symptoms until emergency medical care arrives. This shot is most commonly known by the name EpiPen.

Although allergies are quite common, it’s important to seek treatment for this condition to better reduce your symptoms and avoid potentially dangerous breathing issues. Furthermore, those with severe allergies should consider wearing a bracelet or other identifying accessory which can alert others to their need for immediate medical attention if an allergic reaction should occur.

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