Allergies

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Many of us have had to deal with the tedious symptoms of an allergy. Spring goes into full bloom, and your runny nose, watery eyes and unrelenting sneezing is making you miserable. For others, it might be an indoor trigger, such as dust mites, that's causing the same reaction. Despite being irritating, allergy symptoms can severely affect a person's ability to enjoy their lives in full.

Throughout the world, the incidence of allergies is on the rise. This section provides up-to-date information on allergies, types of allergies, and how you can best manage yours.

What are allergies?

Allergies are among the most common chronic conditions worldwide. Allergies occur when your immune system, the body’s defense system, reacts to a foreign substance it mistakenly views as a harmful invader. Substances that cause these reactions are called allergens.

What is an allergic reaction?

An allergic reaction is the way the body responds to the allergen. The immune system overreacts to the otherwise harmless allergen by producing antibodies. These antibodies travel to cells that release histamine and other chemicals into the bloodstream, causing an allergic reaction. Symptoms often include inflamed skin, airways, sinuses or digestive system.

What are symptoms of allergies?

The severity of allergies can vary from person to person and symptoms can range from minor irritation to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction. An allergic reaction typically triggers symptoms in the nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, lining of the stomach or on the skin. For some people, allergies can also trigger symptoms of asthma. While most allergies can't be cured, a number of treatments can help relieve allergy symptoms.

Does everyone get allergies?

Everyone does not develop allergies. Most people inherit a tendency to be allergic from their parents, although not to any specific allergen. If a child develops an allergy, it is very likely that at least one of his or her parents has allergies. Allergies can exist in many different forms. Below is a list of some of the most common:

Seasonal allergies

Nut, wheat and other food allergies

Pet allergies

Drug allergies

Eye allergies

Plant allergies

Dust allergy

Insect sting allergies

Latex allergy

Mold allergy

Cosmetic allergies

Chemical allergies

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If you think you may have symptoms of an allergy, it is important to make an appointment with an allergy specialist. Two main types of tests are performed to determine whether you are suffering from an allergy.

Skin test: Allergy skin testing may be used to identify the allergens that are causing your allergy symptoms. In this test, your skin is pricked and exposed to an extract of an allergen. If you're allergic, you'll likely develop a raised bump, or hive, at the test location on your skin.

Blood test: If a skin test cannot be performed, a radioallergosorbent blood test (RAST) may be taken. However, this is not as sensitive as a skin test. This blood test can measure your immune system's response to a specific allergen by measuring the amount of allergy-causing antibodies in your bloodstream. Elevated levels of certain antibodies can identify particular allergies.

If your doctor suspects that a medical condition other than an allergy could be causing your symptoms, you may be referred to take further tests.

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Allergy treatment is based on the results of your allergy tests, your medical history, as well as the severity of your symptoms. It can include a number of different treatment strategies:

Allergen avoidance The most important step to prevent allergy symptoms and reduce your need for allergy medication is to avoid your allergens as much as possible. Your doctor will help you take steps to identify and avoid your allergy triggers.

Medications: Allergy medications can help reduce your immune system reaction and ease symptoms. The drugs you use generally depend on the type of allergy you have. Antihistamines and decongestants are the most common medicines used for allergies. Antihistamines help relieve symptoms such as rashes and hives, sneezing, itching, and a runny nose. Decongestant pills, sprays and nose drops reduce stuffiness by shrinking swollen membranes in the nose.

Immunotherapy (also called allergy shot therapy): When it is not possible to avoid your allergens and treatment with regular medications does not adequately control symptoms, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy. This treatment involves injecting a person with increasingly higher doses of their allergen over time. The aim is to densensitise the person’s immune system so the body may gradually become less responsive to allergens. Immunotherapy has been shown to be very effective in selected patients.

Emergency epinephrine: If you have a severe allergy, your doctor may give you an emergency epinephrine shot to carry with you at all times. Given for severe allergic reactions, an epinephrine shot can reduce symptoms until you get emergency treatment.

Alternative medicine: Butterbur, milk thistle and phleum pretense are herbs that may provide some benefit in treating allergies. If you are interested in adding alternative therapies to your treatment plan, always talk with your doctor first to learn about potential risks and drug interactions.

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Although there are no known ways to avoid developing allergies, there are general measures you can take to prevent allergic reactions. These include:

Avoiding known triggers: Even with treatment for your allergy symptoms, it is still best to avoid your triggers where possible. Common triggers include airborne allergens, certain foods, insects or medications.

Reducing dust at home: Dusting surfaces, washing bedding and vacuuming on a regular basis helps to reduce the amount of dust mites, which are common triggers.

Keeping a diary: Keeping track of how and when your symptoms occur, as well as noting the things that ease or worsen your symptoms, may help you and your doctor identify triggers and the best steps to treat them.

Wearing a medical alert bracelet: Wearing a medical alert bracelet is recommended for those who have had a severe allergic reaction in the past. This bracelet lets others know that you have a serious allergy in case you have a reaction and are unable to communicate.

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Nut Allergies

With a peanut or tree nut allergy, even a small amount may cause an allergic reaction in some people. While you may expect to find nuts in certain foods, such as peanut butter and nut breads, it can be included in less obvious products like marinades and sauces. If you have a nut allergy, it is important to check labels carefully before using a product.

Nuts are commonly found in many foods including candy, ice-cream, cereals, grain breads and baked goods such as cookies, pastries and pies. You can also find nuts in meat-free burgers and sauces such as pesto, gravy and hot sauce. People suffering from a nut allergy should be careful dining in restaurants where nuts are typically used in the cuisine, such as in Asian and Indian foods.

Tips for avoiding nuts:

Check the label each time you buy a product. Manufacturers sometimes change recipes, and a trigger food may be added to the new one. So check the label each time and contact manufacturers with any questions.

Beware of cross-contact: Foods that don't contain peanuts or tree nuts can get contaminated if they are prepared in the same place or using the same equipment. If you have a nut allergy, you should avoid products that bear precautionary statements on the label.

Look for nuts outside of the kitchen: In addition to foods, nuts can also be in lotions, shampoos and pet food. Check labels before you buy or use them.  

Carry an epinephrine shot with you:  For some people, an allergic reaction to nuts can quickly become life-threatening, so always be prepared. Carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times and know how to use it.

Pet Allergies

There are several ways that pets can trigger an allergic reaction. Their dander, or skin flakes, as well as their saliva and urine, can all cause allergic reactions.

A frequent misconception is that short-haired animals cause fewer problems. It is the dander that causes the most significant allergic reactions, not the length or amount of hair on the pet. The best types of pets for someone with allergies are pets that don't have hair or fur, shed dander, or produce excrement that creates allergic problems. This makes animals, such as tropical fish, ideal pets for those suffering from allergies.

Tips to control pet allergies:

Keep your distance: Don't touch, stroke or kiss pets.

Use your medicine: If you know that you'll be coming into contact with an animal soon, start taking your medicine ahead of time. By taking medication preventatively, you can stop an allergic reaction before it begins.

Be wary of contact with pet-owners: Even if your guest leaves their pet at home, dander can cling to clothing and set off an allergic reaction.

Keep your pet out of your bedroom: If you have a pet at home, it's important to keep your bedroom as free of pet dander as possible. Since you spend a third of every day in the bedroom, it can help to reduce symptoms.

Restrict your pet to certain sections of the house: Don't allow your pet to roam free. Keeping sections of the house pet-free may help to limit exposure to allergens and reduce symptoms.

Do not use feather pillows: Bird feathers can be an allergen so you should avoid using feather pillows where possible. If a feather pillow is used, it should be encased in plastic.

While these techniques might help, they may not be enough. As difficult as it might be, if keeping your pet is putting your health or a family member's health at risk, consider giving it up. Don't assume that the allergies will naturally get better over time. They may actually get worse and can increase your risk of asthma, which is a serious disease. Instead, with your doctor’s help, figure out the best way to tackle the problem.

Drug Allergies

Many drugs can cause adverse side effects and certain medicines can trigger allergies. Allergic drug reactions, however, are less common than other types of drug reactions.

The most common drug allergy is penicillin. Other antibiotics similar to penicillin can also trigger allergic reactions. Some other drugs commonly found to cause reactions include sulfa drugs, barbiturates, anticonvulsants, insulin, and iodine (found in many X-ray contrast dyes).

Symptoms of a drug allergy can range from mild to life-threatening. Even in people who aren't allergic, many drugs can cause irritation, such as an upset stomach. But during an allergic reaction, the release of histamine can cause symptoms like hives, skin rash, itchy skin or eyes, congestion and swelling in the mouth and throat. A more severe reaction may include difficulty breathing, blueness of the skin, dizziness, fainting, anxiety, confusion, rapid pulse, nausea, diarrhea and abdominal problems.

If you have a drug allergy:

Make sure all of your doctors know the drug you took and the drug reactions you suffered.

Check with your doctor about related drugs that you must avoid, as well as drugs that you can take, if needed.

Wear an emergency medical alert bracelet or necklace, or carry a card that identifies your drug allergy.

Eye Allergies

Eye allergies (also called allergic conjunctivitis) are a common and treatable eye condition. Often referred to as ‘pink eye’, it is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid and helps to keep your eyelid and eyeball moist.

Pink eye can be caused by many different factors, including bacteria, viruses and irritants. Allergic pink eye, however, is triggered by allergens such as pollen, mould spores or pet dander and is not contagious.

Symptoms of allergic pink eye include red itchy eyes that are tearing and burning, and often accompany nasal allergy symptoms. Below are some tips to relieve these symptoms of allergic pink eye.

Tips to deal with allergic pink eye:

Avoid triggers: Try to avoid substances that trigger your allergies. An allergy specialist can test to determine what your specific triggers might be.

Remove contact lenses: Remove contact lenses to reduce irritation, and wear glasses instead.

Use cold compresses: Place cold compresses on your eyes to reduce inflammation.

Avoid touching your eyes: Don't touch or rub the affected eye/s.

Wash household items regularly: Wash your bed linens, pillowcases, and towels in hot water and detergent to reduce allergens.

Stop wearing eye makeup: Avoid wearing eye makeup and do not share eye makeup with anyone else.

Wash your hands often: Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water. Also make sure to wash your hands before applying eye drops or ointment.

Do not re-use eye drops: Do not use eye drops in a non-infected eye that were previously used in an infected eye.

Plant allergies

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are plants that contain an oil called urushiol.Urushiol triggers an allergic reaction when it comes into contact with skin, resulting in a rash consisting of swollen, itchy, red bumps and blisters that appear wherever the oil has touched the skin. The rash can appear within hours of exposure or up to several days later.

A person can be exposed to urushiol directly or by touching objects, such as gardening tools and camping equipment, that have come into contact with the sap of one of the poison plants.

Urushiol is found in all parts of these plants, including the leaves, stems, and roots, and is released when the epidermis of the plant is broken. Even the tiniest scrape or break in this membrane can release the oil. Urushiol is absorbed quickly into the skin and can also be inhaled if the poison plants are burned. The smoke may expose not only the skin to the chemical but can also affect the nose, eyes, throat and lungs. Inhaled urushiol can cause a very serious allergic reaction. If you think you may have been exposed to a poison plant, the tips below can help.

Tips for plant allergies:

Remove your clothes: These could still contain traces of urushiol.

Wash exposed areas of your body: Wash all exposed areas with cool running water. Use soap and water if possible, and be sure to clean under fingernails.

Wash outdoor equipment: Wash clothing and all gardening tools, camping gear, sports equipment, and other objects that came into contact with the plants.

Bathe pets: Bathe your pets of you think they may have been exposed to the plants.

Wheat Allergies

Wheat is one of the most challenging food allergens to manage because it is found in so many products. Wheat is contained in foods that include cereals, pastas, crackers, and even some hot dogs, sauces, and ice cream. For this reason, it is extremely important to check labels carefully before purchasing a product.

To manage a wheat allergy, you often must substitute wheat for foods made from other grains such as corn, rice, quinoa, oats, rye and barley. As with other food allergies, the symptoms of a wheat allergy may include hives or rashes, nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting or diarrhea. It can also cause a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing and headaches.

Wheat allergy tips:

Ask your doctor about other grains: If you have a wheat allergy, it’s possible you are allergic to some other grains too. Gluten, one of the wheat proteins that can cause a reaction, is also in barley, rye, and oats. Ask your doctor if they are safe to eat.

Always check labels: Foods that contain wheat often state it on the label. Always check them to avoid an allergic reaction.

Beware of wheat outside the kitchen: Wreaths and garlands may include wheat or wheat products as decorations. Some children's play dough also has wheat in it.

Bake with other flours: If a recipe requires wheat flour, try rice flour, potato starch flour, corn flour or soy flour instead. Experiment to find the one that gives you the best texture.

Allergies in spring and summer

Spring is the time of year that normally comes to mind when thinking of seasonal allergies, although the same allergic triggers persist into summer.

The biggest allergy trigger during these seasons is pollen – tiny grains released into the air by trees, grasses and weeds for the purpose of fertilising other plants. When these pollen grains come into contact with someone who’s allergic, the immune system overreacts causing an allergic reaction.

Allergy symptoms tend to be particularly high on windy days when pollen is carried through the air for long distances. Symptoms of spring and summer allergies include sneezing, coughing, a runny nose and watery eyes. It can also cause itchy eyes and nose, and dark circles under the eyes.

Treatment generally consists of medication, such as decongestants and antihistamines. While it is almost impossible to completely avoid triggers, the tips below can help to manage allergies during spring and summer.

Tips for spring and summer allergies:

As much as possible, stay indoors when the pollen count is very high. This is usually in the mornings. 

Keep your doors and windows closed, especially during spring, to keep allergens out.

Clean the air filters, vents and bookshelves in your home often, as these areas are where pollen can collect. 

Wash your hair after going outside as pollen can gather there.

Allergies in autumn and winter

Unlike triggers during spring and summer, indoor allergies generally set off symptoms during the colder months. Some common indoor allergy triggers are dust mites, mould and animal dander.

Dust mites are microscopic bugs that flourish in mattresses and bedding. When their droppings and remains become airborne, they can cause allergy symptoms. Mould is a fungus that thrives in damp, humid areas such as bathrooms. Allergy symptoms are triggered when mould spores get into the air. Many people are also allergic to a protein found in pet dander, saliva and urine.

Fall and winter allergies share similar symptoms as those triggered by spring and summer allergens. Treatment often includes medication and immunotherapy. The below tips can help control allergy symptoms during the colder months.

Fall and winter allergy tips:

Throw out any items in your house that contain mould.

Use a dehumidifier to help control mould and dust mites.

Wash bedding in hot water every week.

If you have a pet, don’t let it sleep in your bedroom.

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