When the body’s immune system overreacts to outside chemicals, allergies are known as allergens. These allergens can trigger an allergic reaction in individuals who are sensitive or allergic to them. Common allergens include pollen, dust mites, molds, animal dander, and certain foods. Allergies can develop at any age and are often influenced by your parents’ allergy history.
Causes and Mechanism:
When the body is exposed to an allergen, the immune system produces a specific antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). This antibody triggers the release of chemicals and hormones, known as mediators, which cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Histamine is one such mediator that is commonly produced during an allergic reaction.
Allergy triggers vary widely, ranging from foods and medications to environmental factors such as pollen and dust mites. Specific individuals may be genetically predisposed to allergies, and certain medical conditions like asthma and sensitive skin can increase the likelihood of developing allergies.
Allergy symptoms can vary, depending on the part of the body that comes in contact with the allergen. Common symptoms include:
- Respiratory symptoms: coughing, shortness of breath, nasal congestion, mucus production, and wheezing.
- Eye symptoms: itching, redness, burning, tearing, and swelling of the eyes (conjunctivitis).
- Digestive symptoms: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, or even life-threatening reactions.
- Skin symptoms: skin rash, hives, itching, blisters, and peeling.
- Other symptoms: headache, stomach cramps, runny nose, and wheezing.
While allergies cannot always be prevented, specific measures can help reduce the risk and severity of allergic reactions:
- Breastfeeding for at least four months or more may help prevent allergies in children.
- Introducing solid foods at the right time and avoiding certain foods can help prevent some allergies.
- Exposure to specific allergens, such as dust mites and pet dander, in early life, may reduce the likelihood of developing related allergies (hygiene hypothesis).
- Proper treatment and avoiding triggers can help prevent future allergic reactions once allergies develop.
A healthcare provider may perform a physical exam to diagnose allergies and inquire about symptoms and potential triggers. Allergy testing may be necessary to determine if allergies or other factors cause the symptoms. Skin testing, blood tests (measuring immunoglobulin E levels), and elimination testing are standard methods for diagnosing allergies.
The treatment of allergies depends on the type and severity of symptoms. Medications commonly used include:
- Antihistamines: Available in various forms, such as pills, eye drops, nasal sprays, and injections.
- Corticosteroids: Anti-inflammatory medications used in creams, ointments, eye drops, nasal sprays, and inhalers. Oral corticosteroids may be prescribed for severe symptoms.
- Decongestants: Help relieve nasal congestion but should not be used for more than a few days to avoid rebound congestion.
- Leukotriene inhibitors: Medications that block substances triggering allergies, primarily used for asthma and indoor/outdoor allergies.
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy): These are recommended for individuals with severe allergies who struggle to control their symptoms. Regular injections of the allergen help desensitize the immune system.
Outlook and Complications:
Most allergies can be effectively managed with medications and lifestyle changes. Some children may outgrow allergies, particularly food allergies. However, once an allergen triggers an allergic reaction, it continues to affect the individual. Severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) may require emergency treatment with epinephrine. Allergy shots can be beneficial but may have side effects such as hives, rash, and anaphylaxis.
Understanding allergies, their causes, symptoms, and potential treatments is crucial for effective management. Individuals with allergies can lead a healthier and more fulfilling life by identifying and avoiding allergens, seeking appropriate medical help, and implementing preventative measures. Consult a healthcare provider for a personalized assessment and treatment plan.