Allergies: What Are They?

What you are allergic to is based on your genetic makeup. Your genetics tell your body how to defend itself and what antibodies to produce. However, the body sometimes confuses a harmless substance with a harmful one. This causes the body to enter the defense process and begins to produce antibodies when none are actually needed. This reaction to something harmless is an allergy and the substance that causes the reaction is called the allergen. 

What are some common allergens?

  • Food - food allergies typically occur after a food is eaten. Some common food allergies are shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, and peanuts
  • Insects - some insects can cause allergic reactions when they bite, sting, or even if they are just nearby. Some common ones are mosquitos, bees, cockroaches, and dust mites
  • Inhalants - inhaling certain things like pollen, pet dander, mold, and fungus will cause allergic reactions
  • Contact - skin contact with certain items can cause allergic reactions. Some common skin irritants/allergies are latex, soap, plants, jewelry, and cosmetics.
  • Medication - most of the time reactions to medication are called “non-allergic” but an immune system reaction to medicine is possible. Although, it is a rare occurrence. 

When you are severely allergic to something you may suffer from Anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a serious, rapidly developing allergic reaction that may cause death. It may result in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Itchy rash
  • Throat swelling
  • Tongue swelling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Low blood pressure
Woman suffering from upper respiratory congestion

Symptoms of Allergies

People don’t normally react the same to an allergen but there are common symptoms and reactions. Some of the common symptoms are:

  • Itchiness
  • Reddened skin
  • Mucous membrane irritation and swelling
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Congestion
  • Increased heart rate
  • Vomiting

One particular group of symptoms fall under the term rhinitis. Rhinitis is the swelling of the mucous membrane that results in other symptoms like, sneezing, runny/itchy nose, itchy/watery eyes, and congestion. The two types of rhinitis are allergic and non-allergic.

Allergic Rhinitis:

Allergic Rhinitis occurs when the body reacts to a specific, non-infectious allergen including:

  • Plant pollen 
  • Mold
  • Dust mites
  • Animal hair
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Foods
  • Medicine
  • Insect venom 

If any of these allergens result in sneezing, runny/itchy nose, itchy/watery eyes, and congestion then you are probably suffering from allergic rhinitis. 

Seasonal Allergies and Seasonal Allergic Reactions

  • Sensitivity to tree pollen is at its height during late March and early April.
  • Hay Fever typically occurs around spring and late summer. Hay is actually not the main cause of hay fever. Sensitivity to ragweed is actually the main cause of seasonal allergies.
  • Allergic reactions to mold spores may be more common during October and November due to the increase in fallen leaves.

Perennial Allergic Rhinitis: This sensitivity can last all year and can be caused by pet hair, carpeting, upholstery, and mold. 

Non-Allergic Rhinitis: The symptoms of non-allergic rhinitis are not due to allergies and the immune system. The symptoms are usually triggered by something in the environment including things like, cigarette smoke, pollutants, strong odors, alcohol, and cold weather. Overuse of decongestants, a deviated septum, and an infection may also cause non-allergic rhinitis.

Pet allergy

How are allergies diagnosed and tested?

Diagnosing allergies are not as simple as pricking the skin and taking some blood. There are actually two important steps when it comes to testing for allergies. First your ENT will inquire about your symptom history and then decide which test is right for you.

Your history of symptoms

In order to diagnose your allergies correctly, your ENT will first need a detailed history of your symptoms.

  • First, your ENT will want you to give an account of your symptoms
  • Then, your ENT will ask structured questions in order to determine precise information about your previous allergies. Like, childhood eczema, hay fever, and asthma.
  • Additional details will be about the frequency, severity, duration, and seasonal occurrence symptoms. As well as, triggering factors and life threatening events
  • Other important clues will be details about the diet and food exclusion trials.
  • Family history, home/work/school environment, and current treatments and medications will also provide insight into your allergies.

These details as well as a physical examination will help determine what allergens to test.

Skin Testing

Skin testing is the most common test for diagnosing allergies. Skin testing allows for an ENT to determine what you are sensitive to and how severe that sensitivity is.

I need more information about allergy testing

Treating Your Allergies

Your personal treatment plan may differ from others but some common treatment options are

  • Avoiding triggers
  • Medication use to control symptoms
  • Immunotherapy to help build resistance
What is immunotherapy?

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