Everything you need to know about allergies
What comes to your mind when you hear “allergies”? For most people, it is a negative reaction to something your body doesn’t like, and for others, it is merely just something that’s quite irritating and uncomfortable.
Well, allergies occur when your immune system overreacts to a foreign substance collectively referred to as allergens- and includes certain foods that do not usually cause a reaction in most people, pet dander, pollens, bee venom, or even medication.
The immune system is known to produce antibodies. In the case of allergies, these antibodies identify a particular allergen as harmful, even though it is not.
It could be a new food that almost everybody consumes but your immune system’s reaction to it might mean it is harmful to your body, so this food becomes tagged as an allergen.
When you come in contact with this allergen either by inhaling, injecting, swallowing, or touching, the reaction from your immune system can cause an airway problem, digestive disorders, skin inflammation, and even clog your sinuses.
While most allergic reactions are mild, some can be severe and life-threatening.
Just so we don’t tag the “immune system” as a “bad guy”, let’s understand why an allergic reaction occurs. The immune system is specially designed to protect our body against viruses or bacteria. These are harmful substances that can make us susceptible to illnesses.
When you come in contact with allergens, your body reacts to it as if it is an “invader”.
An invader could be a virus, parasite, fungi, and bacteria that can cause diseases, infections, and illnesses. This overreaction from your body causes the release of histamine and several other things that could cause allergy symptoms.
When your body reacts to an allergen, an antibody called immunoglobulin is produced. Producing immunoglobulin is one way our body tries to destroy an allergen and protect itself.
Then, blood vessels expand and leaks, so, white blood cells known to combat infections and other protective substances all leave the blood vessels to attack the invader.
In the process, immunoglobulin works by alerting other cells to release chemicals like histamine, so the harmful substance can be stopped.
Excessive release of histamine causes an undesirable response that further leads to nose, skin, throat, and lung irritation.
All of these processes are normal responses to harmless allergens. But, in a bid to protect your body, an overflow of allergy symptoms is created.
What causes an allergic reaction?
Why do most people have some really bad allergies and others do not? What triggers allergies and their symptoms?
While we don’t have all the answers, allergies have a genetic component. It could be family history, from parents passed down to children. But, while general allergies are genetic, specific allergies are not. The following are allergy triggers:
- dust mites
- foods particularly eggs, peanuts, milk, wheat, fish, soy
- pollen from grass, weeds
- fur or pollen dander
- medications such as aspirin, penicillin
- metals such as nickel, copper, zinc
- insect venoms, stings, or bites from bees, wasps, mosquitoes, spiders, fleas, horseflies, fire ants
- mold spores(airborne)
- resin from plants such as poison oak, poison ivy
Seasonal allergies also called hay fever are caused by pollen released from plants.
Symptoms of allergies.
Symptoms of allergies could vary depending on the factors influencing them. These factors include the type of allergy or allergens and its severity. While over-the-counter drugs can be taken to manage or reduce allergy symptoms, other allergic reactions with unmanageable symptoms need the help of a specialist.
An allergic food reaction has the following symptoms:
- nausea and vomiting
- itchy skin
- hives, eczema
- swollen lips, face, throat, tongue
- tingling in the mouth
Hay fever or allergic rhinitis can cause symptoms like:
- runny or stuffy nose
- watery, red, or swollen eyes
- itchy nose, eyes, roof of the mouth
An allergic insect sting reaction has the following symptoms:
- itchy skin
- swelling at the sting site
A drug allergy can cause symptoms like
- itchy skin
A severe allergy can cause anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening emergency that could occur as a result of food or skin allergy. Asides from causing you to go into shock, other signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- a drop in blood pressure
- skin rash
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of consciousness
- breathing difficulties
Anaphylaxis can also cause seizures, respiratory problems, or irregular heartbeat.
Seasonal allergies: while most allergies can occur at any time during the year, seasonal allergies occur when allergens present outdoors are more predominant.
These outdoor allergens include mold, pollen from trees, grasses, and weed and the reaction is more rampant during the period when the plant pollinates.
These allergy triggers vary depending on geographic location, climate change, and other environmental factors such as pollution
Risk factors for allergies
People are more susceptible to allergic reactions if they have a family history of allergies such as hives, asthma, hay fever, etc. Also, children younger than 18 and asthmatic patients are at a greater risk for allergy reactions.
Treatments for allergies
The best way we can avoid allergies is to completely find the root cause and stay away from it- so, it is not constantly triggered.
While there is no cure for allergies, effective treatment can reduce symptoms and better your life.
Most times, avoiding allergens is impossible and may not work. There are several other treatment options you can opt for.
To treat allergies, medications are required to control symptoms and include antihistamines (to inhibit the effects of histamines) The medication could be over-the-counter or prescribed by your doctor. Allergy medications include corticosteroids, loratadine, decongestants, cromolyn sodium, leukotriene modifiers.
Most people prefer allergy shots to lessen their immune system’s reaction to allergens. These injections could last for few years until your body gets used to the allergy. If your immunotherapy is successful, allergy symptoms can be prevented from reoccurring.
- Emergency epinephrine:
Epinephrine shots are given in cases of severe, life-threatening allergy.
The shot is meant to reduce the effects of allergic reactions by narrowing blood vessels and opening airways in the lungs until medical care is given.
So, if you have severe allergic reactions and are at risk for anaphylaxis, your doctor may recommend you carry shots of epinephrine.
- Natural remedies:
Many natural remedies and supplements are sold commercially as a treatment for allergies.
It is best to consult your doctor first as most of these natural treatments may contain other allergens that could worsen your symptoms.
- Complementary remedies:
Other remedies that could help reduce allergy symptoms include acupuncture and nasal irrigation technique.
Diagnosis of allergies.
Allergies are diagnosed in several ways. Your doctor would first ask about your symptoms and carry out a physical evaluation.
Questions on what you may have eaten recently or any substance you may have come in contact with will be asked.
Then, a blood and skin test will be done to confirm and diagnose allergens suspected by your doctor.
During the blood test, your blood will be tested for the presence of immunoglobulin, an allergy-causing antibody. And for the skin test, your doctor will refer you to an allergist.
During the test, your skin is pricked or scratched with small needles containing potential allergens.
The reaction from your skin is observed and documented. If you are actually allergic to a substance, redness and skin inflammation will occur.
You can assist your doctor make an accurate diagnosis by taking note of your symptoms, when they started and what triggers them.
Prevention of allergy symptoms
There is no cure or prevention for allergies. But there are several ways to prevent allergy symptoms from occurring. The most ideal way to prevent allergy symptoms is to avoid the allergens that trigger them.
Refraining from allergy triggers is the most effective way to prevent food allergy symptoms.
Thoroughly observing your diet can help you determine the root cause of your allergies so you know how to avoid them.
To help you avoid food allergens, you can start by reading food labels, make inquiries while dining out, and talk to your nutritionist.
To prevent seasonal, contact, and other allergies, it is best to be fully aware of where the allergens are located so you could avoid them.
Allergies are common and do not have life-threatening consequences, for most people.
Most allergies are manageable with avoidance, medications, and lifestyle changes including diet. Cooperating with your doctor and allergist can help reduce allergy symptoms, major health complications and improve your life.