Allergies—Our Overactive Immune System

Over 50 million Americans suffer from chronic allergies each year. Caused by an overreaction of the body’s own immune system, symptoms may range from sneezing, coughing or mild skin irritation to more serious conditions such as allergy induced asthma or life threatening anaphylytic shock. While the Centers for Disease Control report that allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the nation, and that over $18 billion is spent annually for treatment, some persons may be at higher risk than others for allergy related illnesses.

Persons at risk include:

Infants who have already developed cow’s milk allergies
Small children who have asthma or food allergies
Anyone who has developed an allergic reaction to an insect bite or bee sting
Any person with a preexisting allergic condition
Anyone with close family members with allergies including hay fever, skin allergies, food allergies, or allergies to insect stings

So, what are allergies and why do we get them?

Normally, the body’s own immune system produces antibodies to protect itself from substances that cause illness or infection. In the case of allergies however, the body mistakenly identifies allergens as harmful agents, triggering the immune system to release chemicals such as, histamine that produces allergy symptoms. These can irritate and inflame the skin, clog sinuses and airways, and negatively affect the digestive system.

Allergies may be relatively minor, causing only minimal discomfort, but can also escalate to a serious condition known as, “anaphylaxis”, requiring emergency medical treatment.

While the majority of allergies cannot be cured, most can be treated to relieve symptoms.

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Food Allergies and Seasonal Allergies—Among the Most Common

Many people suffer allergic reactions to certain foods, and plant and tree pollens during specific times of the year.

Food Allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk

*Peanut Allergy—An allergy to peanuts can be especially serious since it can cause anaphylaxis.

Airborne Allergens: pollen, animal dander, dust mites, mold

Insect Stings: bee stings, wasp stings, hornet stings, yellow jacket stings, and fire ant stings

Materials Allergies: Latex is a common substance that may promote an immune system response. Proteins found in latex rubber, used in gloves, condoms and other products cause contact skin allergies for some people.

Drug Allergies: These can affect the skin or other tissue or organs
of the body. This includes Penicillin or Penicillin derivatives.

Allergic Reactions—Signs and Symptoms

These vary depending on the substance and the area of the body affected. This includes the digestive system, nasal passages and skin.

Seasonal allergy symptoms/airborne allergies: sneezing, runny nose, stuffy nose, red, swollen eyes, watery eyes, itching on the roof of the mouth

Food allergy symptoms/food allergies: swelling of the lips, tongue, throat, face, mouth, hives, anaphylaxis

Insect sting allergies: swelling at the sting site,
hives or itching covering the body, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, anaphylaxis

Drug allergies: hives, itchy skin, skin rash, swelling in the face, wheezing, anaphylaxis

Atopic dermatitis—a skin allergy also known as “eczema” that may cause skin to become red, peel or flake

Medical conditions associated with allergies include asthma, conjunctivitis, eczema, dermatitis and sinusitis, hives and hay fever.

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Anaphylaxis—Life Threatening Consequences

Anaphylaxis is a life threatening condition caused by a severe allergic response requiring emergency medical assistance. Some foods and insect stings can cause anaphylaxis, causing the body to go into anaphylactic shock.

Signs of anaphylaxis include:

Tingling/Palms/Hands/Feet/Lips
Tight chest
Seizures
Cardiac arrhythmia
Shock
Face Flushing
Loss of consciousness
Loss of blood pressure
Shortness of breath/ragged breathing
Skin rash
Lightheadedness/dizziness
Weak/rapid, pulse
Upset stomach/nausea/vomiting

Risks and Concerns

An allergy may increase your risk of:
Anaphylaxis
Asthma
Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
Sinusitis
Infections of the ears or lungs
Fungal complications of your sinuses or your lungs
Bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, (a hypersensitivity response to the fungus Aspergillus if you’re allergic to mold)

Can Allergies Be Prevented?

Once the body develops an allergic reaction to a certain substance there is generally no way to prevent that allergen from reacting with the body again. Eliminating a particular substance from a person’s environment or controlling the amount of exposure a person has to an allergen is the general protocol surrounding treatment for allergies. This can be done by avoiding particular foods that trigger allergic responses, installing air filtration systems that filter out pet dander, dust mites, pollen, and dust particles, and taking medication to minimize the symptoms and effects of allergies.

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Multiple Allergy Treatments—Many Forms

Allergies may be treated by prescription medications, or over the counter products. These are available in the form of pills, liquids, nasal sprays, inhalers, eye drops, skin creams and injections.

Antihistamines—Antihistamines block histamine, a symptom-causing chemical released by your immune system during an allergic reaction.

Pills and liquids—Oral antihistamine to ease symptoms

Nasal sprays— Relieves sneezing, runny nose, sinus congestion, postnasal drip

Eye drops—Antihistamine for itchy, red, swollen eyes

Decongestants— Offers immediate relief from sinus and nasal congestion.

Pills and liquids—Oral decongestants

Nasal sprays and drops—For short applications

Corticosteroids—Corticosteroids relieve symptoms by suppressing allergy-related inflammation. Most of these medications require a prescription.

Nasal sprays—Prevention and relief of stuffiness

Inhalers—Daily use for asthma prevention

Skin creams—For relief of itching, scaling, redness, swelling, or irritation

Immunotherapy—Gradual increased exposure to allergens to build tolerance

Allergy Shots as Treatment

Regularly scheduled allergy injections can also be taken to either prevent the symptoms of an allergy from occurring or to lessen the severity of the symptoms.

Emergency epinephrine shots—self administered shots to treat anaphylaxis

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