Over 20% of Americans suffer from allergies. Aside from the typical congestion, headaches, and watery eyes associated with common allergies, many Americans also suffer from complications like respiratory problems, asthma, and even death.
If you are an allergy sufferer, you are probably familiar with the symptoms brought on by allergies and what allergens that cause them. But do you understand what an allergy is?
An allergy is a reaction caused by the immune system when it comes in to contact with certain environmental substances.
These substances are typically not harmful to your body, but your immune system sees the substance as a threat and reacts by attacking them. The symptoms that you experience are the reaction in motion— like inflammation, runny nose sneezing, coughing, etc.
What Substances Cause Allergies?
Research is still underway on why the immune system causes an allergic reaction to a substance that is usually harmless.
Allergies are caused by a variety of substances found in the daily environment. Here are just a few:
- Insect stings
- Animal dander
- Chemical fumes
- Metals like nickel or iron
- Cigarette smoke
- Plant resin(example: poison ivy)
For the purpose of this article, we will skip insect, medicinal, and food allergies and focus on seasonal allergies caused by pollen and environmental allergens like dust mites, fumes, smoke, and pet dander.
What Symptoms Can I Expect?
Symptoms depend on the type of allergy and the severity of the allergy. For example, seasonal allergies (hay fever) are caused by pollen and cause itchy eyes, watery eyes, runny nose, and coughing.
An allergy to plant resins like poison ivy will present as an itchy rash that could show up in a small area on the skin or even spread all over the body and into the eyes.
Severe allergies can even cause complications like asthma or anaphylaxis.
How Do I Know If It’s Allergies, a Cold, or a Sinus Infection?
Both allergies and colds have many of the same symptoms. There are a few key differences:
- Allergies can cause itchy eyes and skin rashes.
- Body aches and fever usually accompany a cold.
- Sinus infections typically produce thick, yellow discharge from your nose.
Your healthcare provider can help you determine the underlying cause of your symptoms.
Can Allergies Cause Colds?
Yes, indirectly. If you have allergies for a prolonged period, your immune system can be weakened. As a result, the weakened immune system makes it easier for viruses, like the common cold, to take hold.
Can Allergies Cause Bronchitis?
Yes. Although not all allergies are seasonal. Consistent exposure to any allergen that lingers like cigarette smoke, dust, pollen, and chemical fumes can cause bronchitis. Acute bronchitis lasts several days or weeks, while Chronic bronchitis can last for months and can return frequently.
Can Allergies Be Cured?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for allergies. By working with your healthcare provider, you can find ways to treat and manage allergies in a way that allows you to live your life fully.
How Do You Treat Allergies?
The most obvious answer is to avoid the allergen, but that isn’t always possible. The next best thing is to find out what the allergen is and minimize your exposure. For example, if you discover that you have a dust allergy, then outfit your home, car, and office with air filters. Make sure to get the ducts cleaned regularly, and dust the environment regularly- or even better have someone else dust the area regularly.
If you suffer from seasonal allergies, know which pollens are your triggers, follow the pollen counts and seasonal trends for that allergen, and stay inside when the pollen count is high.
If avoidance and minimization of exposure aren’t enough, then you will need to control symptoms. You can do this by taking over the counter or prescription medicines like:
- antihistamines like Benadryl, Zyrtec, or Claritin
- cromolyn sodium (Gastrocrom)
- decongestants (Afrin, Suphedrine PE, Sudafed)
- leukotriene modifiers (Singular, Zyflo)
Immunotherapy has also become a popular option for treating allergies. If you undergo immunotherapy, you will receive several injections for a few years to help your body get used to your allergy. When successful, immunotherapy can prevent allergy symptoms from returning.
If you suffer from severe, life-threatening allergies, medical help is required. In emergency situations, a shot of epinephrine(Epi-pen) will counter allergic reactions until medical help arrives.
How Are Allergies Diagnosed?
Many doctors can diagnose allergies, but some doctors and clinics specialize in allergies and allergy treatments. Regardless of whom you choose to see, the doctor will start by asking about your symptoms and performing a physical exam. They’ll ask general questions about anything unusual you have eaten recently or any substances you may have come into contact with. They may also ask more specific questions based on the symptoms that are present. The doctor may then order a blood or skin test to get more clarity on what is causing the allergy.
What is an Allergy Blood Test?
If your doctor is worried about the potential for a severe allergic reaction or needs more information to recommend treatment, a blood test will be performed to confirm a diagnosis. The doctor will take your blood and test it for the presence of allergy-causing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE).
What is a Skin Test?
Your doctor may decide to refer you to an allergist for testing and treatment. Allergists can perform skin tests to diagnose allergies and then decide on the best course of treatment. During the test, the skin is pricked or scratched with small needles containing potential allergens. If you are allergic to a substance, the area will become red and inflamed.
Why Do I Need to See a Doctor for Allergies?
It’s difficult for you to diagnose and treat your own allergy accurately. No single treatment works for every person. For some, popping an antihistamine and going on with your day is enough. But for others, a diagnosis and a customized treatment plan are required for best results.
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