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What are Allergies?

What Are Allergies?

Simply put, allergies are responses by the body’s immune system to various foreign substances (allergens) that either enter the body or come into contact with it.

Allergens that have been known to cause reactions include pollen, pet dander, nuts, bee venom, etc.  Other commonly known allergens include dust mites, some grass and weed pollen, mold, animal dander, insect stings, some foods such as shellfish, eggs, grains, nuts, and some types of medication.

When a body comes in contact with any substance to which he or she is allergic, the immune system thinks of it as harmful and produces a chemical compound called histamine to neutralize it.

It is this extraordinary production of histamine that can cause a number of symptoms such as sneezing, headaches, skin rashes, runny noses, swelling, diarrhea, nausea, etc.  In rare cases, the body might even experience a severe and life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.

Allergens can be found in the air, in drinks, in food and almost in any other place in one’s environment.  To most people, allergens are harmless, however, to a small fraction of the population, the immune system reacts to allergens as if they were pathogens or harmful foreign substances that are invading your body and must be destroyed.   This ends up causing more harm than good to the body.

Symptoms Causes and Risk Factors Associated with Allergies

Allergies come with a number of symptoms that include vomiting, peeling skin, sneezing, etc. The most common risk factors for developing an allergy are family history or the presence of a preexisting allergy.   If one already has an allergy,  then they are also more likely to develop another allergy to a second or even third allergen.

Allergies are fairly common. It is estimated that at least one in every five Americans suffers from some type of allergy. Estimates from United States public health authorities show that around 20% of the people living in the US suffer from pollen allergies, common in the central valley.

According to a study published in 2013 by JAMA Pediatrics, the national spending on all children with food allergies is about $24.8 Billion annually.

About 30% of adults and 40% of all children in the United States develop an allergy at some stage in their lives.  Studies also show that this number is increasing. This is a trend that is common in most industrialized nations.

According to researchers at the St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, many of the children born outside the United States who are currently residing in the US show lower risk of developing allergies compared to their American-born counterparts.   The risk of developing allergies for these children however, seems to increase gradually the longer they remain in the US.

It has been observed that children in the US are at high risk of developing food allergies as they age.  Statistics show that one in every 13 children under the age of 18 has a food allergy and out of that number, about 30% are allergic to more than one type of food.   About 39% of children with food allergies have had a history of severe and even life threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis).

The Most Common Symptoms of Allergies

Allergies can be either seasonal or perennial. Seasonal allergies are caused by seasonal allergens such as pollen may only occur or worsen during specific times of the year such as spring when flowers bloom.   Perennial allergies on the other hand may occur all year round since their allergens do not depend on season factors.

Allergies usually manifest themselves close to the point at which the allergy comes into contact with the body. If the allergen happens to have been a substance that entered the body by breathing, then the allergic reaction will most likely manifest itself around the nose, eyes and even lungs.   If the allergen happens to have been something that was ingested or swallowed, then the reaction is mostly likely to occur in the mouth stomach or even intestine.

The body takes time to develop an allergy to a particular allergen.  Usually when a person who has an allergy encounters an allergen, the reaction does not occur immediately, the body’s immune system progressively increases its sensitivity to the allergen before it finally overreacts to it.

As the immune system progressively increases its sensitivity to the allergen, it tries to recognize and remember it, and then it creates antibodies to attack it.   This process which may last anywhere between a few days to a few years and is known as sensitization.   In most cases, sensitization may not be completed and one may experience a few symptoms but not a full-blown allergic reaction.

In almost all cases, when one’s immune system overreacts to an allergen, irritation and inflammation may appear in the area of contact. The specific symptoms largely depend on the type of allergen.  As described earlier, allergic reactions mostly occur in the airways, nasal passages, eyes, sinuses, on the skin, etc.

Allergies from pollen and dust may have some of these symptoms: watery eyes, an itchy nose, itchy or swollen eyes, runny nose, cough, blocked sinuses, etc.

Skin allergic reactions may include- peeling or flaking skin, red skin or rashes.

Allergies from food can include a number of different reactions such as- diarrhea, vomiting,  itchiness in the mouth,  shortness of breath,  rectal bleeding,  tongue swelling,  swelling of the lips,  tingling in the mouth,  swelling in the throat, anaphylaxis ( usually a life-threatening and severe allergic reaction),   swelling of the face or stomach cramps.

Insect bite reactions may include- a sudden drop in blood pressure, shortness of breath, restlessness, chest tightness,  anaphylaxis, itchiness, hives, dizziness anxiety, etc.

Any individual who has experienced a serious allergic reaction may be at risk of future reactions. Even if the first allergic reaction turns out to be mild, one can never rule out the possibility that future reactions may be severe or even life threatening.

It is advisable for anyone who may be at risk severe allergic attacks to be prepared well in advance by equipping himself or herself with self-injectable epinephrine (always following your physician’s directions)  and even the local emergency medical numbers.

Allergies may not be 100% curable they are manageable.  To learn more or to work with a trained physician on an allergy management plan best suited for you, call the Baz Allergy Asthma and Sinus Center nearest you to schedule a consultation.

Common allergy symptoms

  • Congestion
  • Runny Nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Itchy or Watery Eyes

Symptoms that may not be recognized as allergy related include:

  • Headaches
  • Sore Throat
  • Loss of Taste or Smell
  • Low Productivity/Poor Concentration
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Snoring