Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance or a food that doesn’t cause a reaction in most people.
When performing normally, your immune system makes antibodies to fight against viruses and other illnesses. But when the body’s immune system mistakes a normally harmless foreign substance, such as pollen, for a dangerous invader, an allergic reaction occurs with the antibodies releasing several immune chemicals such as histamine.
Histamines boost blood flow to the area of your body the allergen is affecting. This lets other chemicals from your immune system flow to the area to begin attacking the allergen.
If your nose is affected by pollen, for example, histamines prompt the nose membranes to make more mucus. This can cause you to sneeze and expel the allergen. Mucus can also form in your throat and make you cough, or in your eyes and make your eyes water. All of these excretions help you rid the body of the allergen.
If you have a food allergy, histamines work in your gut, too, triggering an allergic reaction, irritating your digestive system, and possibly causing you to vomit or feel nauseated.
The severity of allergic reactions to various allergens can range from minor irritation (sneezing, runny eyes, itchy skin) to anaphylaxis-an entire body response that can be a potentially life-threatening emergency.
Anaphylaxis is a severe body reaction that some types of allergens can trigger. Anaphylaxis is a life–threatening medical emergency that can cause the body to go into shock.
Signs of anaphylaxis include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Lightheadedness or severe shortness of breath
- Drop in blood pressure or a rapid, weak pulse
- Skin rash
- Nausea and vomiting
Seek emergency medical help immediately if you are experiencing anaphylaxis by calling 911 or having someone rush you to an emergency center. If you carry an epinephrine auto-injector such as an EpiPen, give yourself a shot right away, then proceed to the emergency center immediately for oversight.
Types of Allergens
Allergens can be:
- Dust mites
- Animal dander
- Bee or ant venom (from a sting or bite)
- Food allergies
Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) is an allergic response to pollen. The lining of your nose and the protective tissue of your eyes (conjunctiva) swell and become inflamed. Symptoms include itchy and watery eyes, nose, and mouth. Sneezing and congestion result. In some people, allergic asthma symptoms occur (wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, and/or chest tightness).
Treatment options include over-the-counter and prescription oral antihistamines, nasal steroids, nasal antihistamines, anti-leukotrienes, and nasal cromolyn.
Symptoms can be reduced by avoiding pollen by staying indoors when pollen counts are high, closing your window, and using air conditioning.
Another treatment option is allergy shots (immunotherapy).
Dust mites are tiny organisms that live in dust and the fibers of pillows, carpets, upholstery, and mattresses. They grow in warm, humid areas.
Symptoms of dust mite allergies are like those of pollen–watery eyes, runny nose, and itchiness.
To help manage dust mite allergies, you can get dust mite encasements to put over your pillows, box springs, and mattresses. These are airtight plastic/polyurethane covers. Removing carpet or vacuuming frequently with a high-efficiency filter vacuum cleaner can help with dust mites levels.
There are also medications to help symptoms, and immunotherapy is an option.
People can have allergic reactions to the proteins secreted by animal sweat glands or in an animal’s salvia. The best treatment for this type of allergy is the removal of the pet that is causing the allergic reaction. But many people are not willing to give up their beloved pets. So, the second-best option is to keep your pet out of your sleeping room, use air cleaners with HEPA filtration, and wash your cat or dog frequently to limit their dander.
Treatment can include medications to control your eye, nose, and chest symptoms, and immunotherapy is also an option.
Molds are tiny fungi (like Penicillium) that produce spores that float in the air like pollen. Mold is a common trigger for allergies. They can be found indoors in damp areas such as basements, kitchens, bathrooms, or outdoors in leaf piles, hay, mulch, grass, or under mushrooms. Mold spores reach their peak during hot, humid days.
Treatments for mold allergies include medication and immunotherapy.
Some people develop an allergy to latex (like that found in cleaning gloves or surgical gloves) after repeated exposures. Hives, watery and red eyes, skin rash, itching, and wheezing are all symptoms of a latex allergy. The reaction can be mild, such as skin redness and itching, or it can be severe if your mucosal membranes are exposed as they are during surgery or a dental or gynecological exam.
Treatment is eliminating contact with latex. There is no cure for a latex allergy. If you do have a latex allergy, it is important to wear an alert bracelet, carry an emergency epinephrine needle, and always inform your dentist and other healthcare providers of your allergy.
The normal reaction to a bee sting or fire ant bite is pain, swelling, and redness around the sting site. A larger but still localized reaction includes swelling that extends beyond the sting site. For example, if you are stung on the hand, you may see swelling up your arm.
The most serious reaction to an insect sting is an allergic reaction that needs immediate medical attention.
Symptoms of a very serious allergic reaction include:
- Difficulty breathing, possibly resulting in wheezing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Swelling of your face, throat, or mouth tissues
- Generalized (widespread) hives that appear as a red, itchy rash that spreads to areas other than the area that was stung
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Dizziness or a sharp drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
If you have these symptoms above to a first-time sting, a second sting could result in a serious reaction that can be life-threatening called anaphylactic. Therefore, after your first sting reaction, you need to see a board-certified allergy/immunologist specialist to get a skin or blood test to confirm your allergy to bee venom. You will be prescribed an Epi-pen that has epinephrine in it that you will administer if you are stung again.
Venom immunotherapy is recommended if you have a venom allergy to reduce the possibility that a second sting could cause a very serious full-body reaction that could be fatal.
Food allergies develop when your body develops a specific antibody to a specific food. An allergic reaction occurs within minutes of eating the food. Symptoms can be severe. In adults, the most common food allergies are shellfish, tree nuts, and peanuts. Among children, the most common include milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish.
Symptoms for food allergies include itching, hives, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, breathing difficulties, and swelling in and around the mouth. Reactions can be serious and, in some cases, fatal. Therefore, it is extremely important to avoid foods that cause allergic reactions. You may be prescribed epinephrine (adrenaline) to carry all the time.
There are new therapies for peanut allergies called oral immunotherapy. Food allergies need to be addressed by a specialist.
Skin Allergies Such as Eczema
Eczema is an allergic skin reaction also called atopic dermatitis, which can cause:
- Itchy skin
- Flaking or peeling of the skin
- Reddening of the skin
There are various treatments, both topical and oral, for the treatment of eczema.
Allergy skin testing can be used to identify the specific allergens that are causing your allergy symptoms. The test is performed by pricking your skin with an extract of various allergens and then watching to see if your skin reacts.
Blood tests can also reveal allergies by evaluating the number of antibodies produced by your immune system to a particular allergen. Higher levels of certain antibodies suggest a possible allergy to that allergen. This form of testing is not as sensitive as a skin test.
Treatments for Allergies
There are numerous and varied treatments for allergies, including antihistamines, decongestants, nasal steroids, asthma medicines, and immunotherapy.
An antihistamine is a prescription or an over-the-counter medication that blocks some of what the histamine does–the runny nose, watery eyes, the itchy skin, for example.
Decongestants can be purchased over the counter to clear nasal and throat passages. The possible use of nasal steroids should be discussed and selected with your provider.
Asthma medicines and immunotherapy should also be discussed with your provider or specialist.
For diagnosis and treatment of recurrent or sudden onset of allergies,
make an appointment with Catawba Valley Primary Care at (828) 695-5900.