Overview and Allergy Facts
Allergies are the result of an exaggerated immune system response to a substance (allergen) that is generally not harmful but can cause a reaction in some individuals. Allergens can enter the body to cause an allergy in a variety of ways including being eaten, inhaled, injected, or coming into contact with the skin.
Allergy Symptoms and Signs
The severity of allergy signs and symptoms depend on the individual and can range from minor irritation to anaphylaxis—a potentially life-threatening emergency.
Allergy symptoms can involve:
- Sinuses and nasal passages
- Digestive system
Allergy signs can include:
- Itchy eyes
- Runny nose
- Scratchy throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Asthma attacks
When individuals have an allergy, their immune system acts as if the allergen is a foreign invader by releasing histamines that cause allergy symptoms. Common allergy triggers include:
- Airborne allergens (eg, dust mites, mold, pollen, and animal dander)
- Foods (eg, peanuts, soy, fish, shellfish, and eggs)
- Insect stings (eg, bee or wasp stings)
- Medications (particularly penicillin and penicillin-based antibodies)
Tests and Diagnosis
Allergies are diagnosed in 3 steps:
- Medical and personal history
- Physical examination
- Tests to determine allergens including skin, patch, or blood tests
The skin test involves inserting small amounts of the possible allergens into the skin by making a small indentation with a needle on the surface of the skin. If allergies are detected, individuals can experience redness, swelling, and itching at the test site. The patch test involves placing a small amount of the possible allergen on the skin, covering with a bandage, and checking the site again in 48 hours. If individuals are allergic to the substance, a rash usually appears. Allergen blood tests are often used if individuals have skin conditions or take medications that can interfere with skin testing.
Individuals can help prevent common allergy triggers in many ways. For example:
- Shower or bathe before bed to wash off pollen or other allergens from the skin and hair
- Use a dehumidifier to remove excess moisture that could be causing mold
- Bathe pets frequently and use an air filter to help control pet dander
- Remove drapes and feather pillows and replace carpets with linoleum or wood flooring to reduce the incidence of dust mites
Although no cure exists, allergies can be successfully managed. Individuals should educate themselves about their particular allergy to develop a better understanding of what triggers it, how it affects the body, and the various treatment options available. Individuals should also follow the treatment plan developed by their clinician.
Treatment and Care
Clinicians will determine a treatment plan based on the results of allergy tests, medical history, and severity of symptoms. Treatment strategies may include avoidance of allergens, prescription medication options, and/or allergy shots.
Homeopathic and Alternative Remedies
Many individuals turn to homeopathic or alternative medicine to help alleviate allergy symptoms. Some examples include:
- Herbal medicine and vitamin supplements
- Diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes
A number of allergy medications that were once available only by prescription can now be purchased over the counter, including antihistamines, decongestants, pain relievers, and eye drops. Make sure to inform the pharmacist if any prescription medicines are being taken to avoid any potential drug-drug interactions or drug-disease interactions (eg, hypertensive patients who are taking decongestants).
Resources for Patients
These organizations offer support services for patients with allergies:
666 Plainsboro Road
Plainsboro, NJ 08536
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