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Allergy

What Are Allergies?

Allergies are the result of a natural response by the body’s immune system to substances that are normally harmless to most people. The immune system is designed to protect the body from foreign invaders that cause sickness. In the case of allergies, the immune system mistakes harmless substances for illness-causing organisms and triggers a reaction by releasing histamines. Most allergies tend to affect the nose, eyes, ears and even the stomach. In more severe cases, however, allergies can trigger asthma attacks or even cause a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis.

An allergic reaction can be triggered by a very broad range of substances called allergens, which are present year-round or appear during different seasons. Because allergies result from unique, individual sensitivities, they can vary dramatically from person to person, and a person can have a single allergy or be affected by a very long list of allergies. Some allergies are more common than others and affect larger groups of people.

The most common allergens include:

  • Dust mites

  • Foods, such as peanuts

  • Insect stings or bites

  • Latex

  • Medications, such as penicillin

  • Mold

  • Pet dander

Symptoms

Allergy symptoms can vary tremendously in severity and range. Some people may experience a single symptom while others experience multiple at the same time as part of a larger allergic reaction. In mild cases, allergy symptoms are more annoying than a threat to health. In more serious cases, however, allergies can affect breathing and other vital functions. The most common allergy symptoms include:

  • Cough — A dry cough that doesn’t go away may indicate the presence of inflammation in the throat and/or lungs.

  • Rash — Hives, eczema or contact dermatitis outbreaks can be a result of an allergy.

  • Runny or stuffy nose — Nasal congestion and discomfort is extremely common and is often accompanied by sneezing.

  • Shortness of breath — Mild shortness of breath can be a common allergy symptom, but severe breathing issues may be a sign of anaphylaxis.

  • Watery eyes — Teary eyes are often caused by airborne allergens, such as dust or pollen, and are one of the most common allergy symptoms.

Treatment Options

Diagnosing the allergens a person is sensitive to is the first step in treating an allergy. An allergist may be consulted to perform specific skin tests to narrow down the range of allergens and to develop a specific treatment plan. Allergy treatment plans — just like the variety and severity of allergies themselves — can vary significantly from person to person. Most often, however, treatment includes:

  • Allergy shots — Also known as subcutaneous (under the skin) immunotherapy, allergy shots over time help increase the body’s tolerance of certain allergens.

  • Prescription medications — Such as nasal corticosteroids, nasal and oral antihistamines, leukotriene antagonists and inhaled medications (for asthma).

  • Sublingual immunotherapy — The liquid form of allergens that is given orally, this produces the same effect as allergy shots.

  • Lifestyle modification — Avoiding certain foods or substances may be a key piece of treating allergies, especially in severe cases.

  • Over-the counter medication — Over-the-counter medications are most often used to manage allergy symptoms, including nasal congestion and runny or stuffy nose.

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