Annoying or life-threatening?
When you hear the word allergies, you probably think of sneezing, runny nose, itching eyes. Every year during Spring a large number of people have this type of allergic reaction to pollen and other tiny particles floating in the air. For some people, their allergy is much more severe and can be a life-threatening emergency because their tongue swells, they become short of breath, and can have hives all over their body. What causes our body to reaction to be minor or severe? Why is it different from person to person?
An allergy is when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance, like pollen, bee venom, pet dander or food, in a way which is different from how most people’s bodies react. When your body identifies something that is harmful, it makes antibodies to protect you. This is great when your body is fighting an infection. The problem is when your body perceives something as harmful that isn’t normally considered to be harmful by most people’s bodies. When you come into contact with the allergen, your immune system responds. The reaction can be mild or severe depending on your body’s antibody production.
For most people allergic to pollen or those who have mild reactions to their allergen, they will likely experience sneezing, itching, runny/stuffy nose and watery/red/swollen eyes. For those who have a more serious reaction, they will likely experience tingling in the mouth, swelling of lips/tongue/face/throat, hives, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, wheezing or rash. For those with the most severe reaction, they will experience anaphylaxis, which is life-threatening and needs to be treated by emergency personnel. Anaphylaxis symptoms include loss of consciousness, severe shortness of breath, skin rash, lightheadedness, rapid/weak pulse, drop in blood pressure and nausea/vomiting.
In order to prevent an allergic reaction, you must avoid your allergen. Since an allergen can be almost anything, this can be difficult. Allergens can be airborne, like pollen, animal dander, dust mites, mold or mildew. They can also be types of food, such as peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk or bananas. They can be medication related, like penicillin or other antibiotics. It can also be something that you come into contact with like bees, wasps or latex gloves. Please see Fasts Facts for a list of possible allergens. In order to find out what your allergen is (sometimes it could be more than one), your doctor will most likely do several things. They will ask if you have family history of allergies or asthma and ask detailed questions about the symptoms you have when you have a reaction. In addition to a physical exam, they will also have you keep a detailed diary of symptoms and possible triggers. The best way to know for sure what you are allergic to is by doing a skin test or blood test.
Once you know what you’re allergic to, the best way to avoid a reaction is to avoid the trigger. It is also important to wear a medical alert bracelet in case you have a reaction and become unable to communicate what happened. Also, continue to keep a diary of symptoms that appear even if you are avoiding your known triggers because sometimes your body can change and become allergic to something that you previously weren’t. On a side note, the current recommendation for pregnant or breast feeding women is to maintain their normal diet and not to avoid specific foods (such as peanuts) because the thought of early exposure might actually help prevent an allergy.
Obviously, if you can avoid your allergen, you will not have a reaction. If you are unable to avoid it, there are things you can do. If it is a mild allergy (like pollen), there are over-the-counter medications you can take to help keep them under control. The medications come in many forms, such as pills, liquids, nasal sprays and eye drops. For some people with a more severe allergy, you might need a prescription medication. Another technique used to treat more severe allergies is immunotherapy. This typical involves a series of injections of purified allergen extracts and is given over a period of a few years. For those with the most severe reactions (anaphylaxis), they must carry an emergency Epi (Epinephrine) kit with them at all times. Having this kit can mean the difference between life or death. If you use your kit and start feeling better, you should still go to the nearest emergency room because the symptoms could return after the medication wears off.
Allergies are annoying and sometimes life-threatening, but they can be managed so you can live a normal, healthy life. If you have any questions, please talk to your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at http://acaai.org/allergies