An allergy is a reaction caused when the immune system mistakenly thinks a normally harmless substance is damaging to the body. Allergens can be breathed or swallowed, or they can enter through the skin. Allergies can affect anyone, no matter their age, gender, race or socioeconomic status.
To diagnose an allergy, your health care provider will give you an exam, take your medical health record and do blood and skin tests. The three most effective ways to treat allergies are avoidance, allergy shots and medicine.
What are allergies?
Allergies are problems of the immune system. Most allergic reactions happen when the immune system reacts to a false alarm. Normally, the human body defends itself against harmful things, such as viruses or bacteria, but sometimes the immune system attacks mild things like dust, mold or pollen.
The immune system makes large amounts of the antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). This is a complex chemical weapon that attacks and destroys the invading substance (i.e., dust, mold, pollen, etc.) Each IgE antibody exactly targets a specific allergen or substance that causes the allergy. In this way, inflammatory chemicals, such as histamines, cytokines and leukotrienes, are made and given off. This causes the person to experience unpleasant or even life-threatening symptoms.
What causes allergies?
Allergens are substances that can be breathed in or swallowed or that come in contact with the skin. Common allergic reactions, such as hay fever, certain types of asthma and hives, are linked to IgE. A person can be allergic to one type of pollen but not another. When a sensitive person is exposed to an allergen, the body starts making a large amount of matching IgE antibodies. When the person is exposed to the same allergen at a later point, he or she may have a reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction will differ based on the type and amount of allergen you have come in contact with. It also depends on how the body’s immune system reacts to that allergen.
The most common allergens are:
- Household dust, dust mites and dust mite waste
- Animal dander, urine or oil from skin
- Bug stings
Who is at risk for allergies?
Allergies can affect anyone, no matter their age, gender or race. Allergies are often more common in children, but a first-time event can happen at any age or come back after many years of remission.
There’s a tendency for allergies to run in families, although the exact family links that cause it aren’t yet understood. In sensitive people, things like hormones, stress, smoke, perfume or other environmental irritants may also play a role in making existing allergy symptoms worse.
Symptoms of Allergies
An allergic reaction can happen anywhere in the body. This includes the skin, eyes, lining of the stomach, nose, sinuses, throat and lungs. These are the places where immune system cells are found to fight off germs that are breathed in or swallowed or have come in contact with the skin. Often, the symptoms of allergies grow slowly over a period of time.
Allergy sufferers may become used to constant symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion or wheezing. They may not think that their symptoms are unusual. These symptoms can often be stopped or controlled with the help of an allergist.
Allergic reactions can cause:
- A stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, itching and/or itching in the ears or roof of the mouth
- Red, itchy, watery eyes
- Red, itchy, dry skin
- Hives or itchy welts
- Itchy rash
- Asthma symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing
To diagnose an allergy, your health care provider will give you an exam and take your medical health record. He or she may also perform a skin test, which is a way of measuring a person’s level of IgE antibodies to certain allergens. Using diluted solutions of certain allergens, the health care provider either gives you a shot with the solutions or puts them directly on the skin by making a small puncture. A raised red area on the skin of a certain size means that the person had a reaction.
Your health care provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on:
- Your age
- Your overall health and medical history
- How well you can handle specific medications, procedures or therapies
- How long the condition is expected to last
- Your opinion or preference
Immunotherapy is a type of treatment for allergic patients with rhinitis (hay fever), conjunctivitis or asthma. It is also used for patients with a stinging bug allergy. A mixture of the allergens the patient is allergic to is made. Allergy shots are injected into the patient’s arm on a weekly basis or drops are placed under the tongue on a daily basis until a maximum dose is reached.
Most patients get better with allergy shots or drops. It often takes 6-12 months before a clear reduction in allergy symptoms is noticed. In some patients, a reduction in symptoms is evident in as soon as six to eight months. A full course of immunotherapy is typically three to five years.
Allergy shots or drops are only part of the treatment plan for allergic patients. Since it takes time for them to become effective, you will need to stay on your allergy medication, as prescribed by your health care provider. It is also important to continue getting rid of allergens (such as dust mites) from your surroundings.
Medicine: There are many medicines that work well for people who suffer from allergies. Antihistamines are used to calm or stop the symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and other allergies. Decongestants are used to treat stuffiness in the nose and other symptoms linked to colds and allergies. The use of medicines for asthma or breathing symptoms from allergies is tailored for each person based on the severity of the symptoms.
We are proud to announce a new allergy solution now available at CFM through a partnership with US BioTek Laboratories, offering allergy testing and immunotherapy. Talk with your health care provider for more information about allergy medicines and which treatment is best for you.
Interested in learning more about allergies? Visit the allergy page at Johns Hopkins.