Allergies affect millions of children and adults in the United States. An estimated one in five people suffer from allergies such as food allergies, pet allergies, seasonal allergies and more. Allergies occur when the body's immune system reacts abnormally to various things people come into contact with on an everyday basis. These things that cause allergic reactions are called allergens.
Common allergens include:
- dairy products
- animal dander
- toxins from insect bites
Most cases of allergies can be managed with over the counter medication, but people with severe allergies may need more advanced treatments.
Symptoms of Allergies
Allergy symptoms vary widely across the spectrum of people who are diagnosed with allergies. For some people, coming into contact with allergens may result in mild to moderate symptoms such as:
- slight swelling
- red skin rashes
- sinus congestion
- headaches or fatigue
Many people refer to hay fever as a result of allergies, and
hay fever - formally called allergic rhinitis -- generally encompasses a runny or stuffy nose combined with itchy or swollen eyes.
However, people who have severe allergies could face life-threatening symptoms from their allergy triggers.
Severe allergic reactions are known as anaphylactic reactions, and some of the most common anaphylactic allergens are nuts, bee stings and penicillin.
What causes a person to break out in allergic symptoms? When people come into contact with their allergens, their immune systems create antibodies as they normally would when fighting off viruses and infections. However, these antibodies wrongly attach themselves to mast cells, causing the production of the hormone called histamine. This hormone is what causes the most common symptoms of allergies to occur. When a person has skin allergies, allergic reactions tend to be confined to the part of the body that comes into contact with allergens. However, allergic symptoms can be more widespread depending on the nature of a person's allergies.
Best Allergy Treatments
There are no cures for allergies, but most people with allergies can manage their symptoms by avoiding allergy triggers and taking medication when necessary. Antihistamines make up the most commonly used asthma medications; these medications block the production of the hormone histamine which is responsible for outbreaks of allergic symptoms. Other medications such as corticosteroids and decongestants can help people mitigate specific symptoms of allergies such as nasal congestion, headaches and swelling. Allergy medication may be available either in pill form, eye drops, skin creams or nasal sprays. Some of these medications may be combined into single drugs, providing numerous benefits to allergy sufferers without needing to take multiple pills. Antihistamines and other helpful medications are available for purchase over the counter, while stronger medications are prescribed by doctors.
People suffer from severe, anaphylactic allergies must carry emergency treatment devices known as EpiPens. Equipped with an auto-injector, an EpiPen allows a person to inject himself with a life-saving dosage of
epinephrine - also known as adrenaline -- which is produced naturally in the body. Without the use of an EpiPen, a person undergoing an anaphylactic reaction could easily die in the time needed to receive professional medical help. The dosage of epinephrine in an EpiPen can quickly reduce swelling in the throat, lower blood pressure and improve breathing. Anyone who is at risk of severe allergic reactions should carry an EpiPen at all times. In addition, people with anaphylactic allergies should teach their friends, family and coworkers how to use their auto-injector devices so they could provide life-saving assistance should the need arise.
That said, avoiding allergy triggers is the best form of managing symptoms over time. This is especially important for people who are at risk of anaphylaxis, which can lead to swelling that blocks the airway and results in death within minutes. People should also be aware of the severity of their symptoms, as well as whether their allergy symptoms seem to be getting worse over time.
If allergy symptoms seem significantly worse than normal - including the sudden onset of shortness of breath, a severe skin rash, dizziness or vomiting - then people shouldn't hesitate to seek out emergency medical care.
Most allergy symptoms are normal, but advanced allergy symptoms can't be treated with simple treatments.
Sinus & Seasonal Allergies
Seasonal allergies are caused by allergens which are more common at different times of the year. Springtime is the most prolific time for seasonal allergies, as blooming plants and an upswing of yard work, agriculture and landscaping cause large amounts of pollen to be spewed into their air. Insect levels also reach high levels during the spring, causing an upswing in allergies related to insect bites and stings. Most seasonal allergies associated with springtime allergens come in the form of hay fever. Even people who don't have significant allergies may experience the symptoms of nasal congestion and watery eyes as the days start getting longer and warmer.
That said, seasonal allergies happen throughout the year. Pollen allergies remain common throughout the summer. When autumn sets in and weather begins to worsen, mold allergies and dust mite allergies become more common. Ragweed is also a bothersome allergen during the cooling months of fall. During the winter, as people spend more time indoors, pet allergies and mold allergies become more problematic. Dust allergies are also common in the winter, especially in homes and workplaces with ventilation systems that haven't been cleaned for several months.
Food allergies are both common and complex, as allergies may vary significantly from person to person. Unlike other allergic reactions, the symptoms of food allergies tend to be more unpleasant. Nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea are examples of symptoms resulting from just mild to moderate allergies. For someone with severe allergies, the symptoms can be that much worse. People who have anaphylactic food allergies must be extremely careful to avoid foods that contain even trace amounts of the foods that they're allergic to.
A person with a peanut allergy can die within minutes from eating a cookie containing the smallest traces of peanut chunks or shavings.
People who have known food allergies must read the ingredients labels of anything they eat while using extreme caution when eating foods prepared by family, friends, coworkers or other acquaintances.