Allergies are an abnormal response of the immune system. People who have allergies have an immune system that reacts to a usually harmless substance in the environment. This substance (pollen, mold, and animal dander for example) is called an allergen.
Allergies are a very common problem, affecting at least two out of every ten Americans.
What happens during an allergic reaction?
When a person is exposed to an allergen, either by touching it, swallowing it, or inhaling it, their body will have a reaction.
First, the body produces an antibody called IgE, that binds to the allergen.
Then the antibodies and allergen bind to a blood cell called a mast cell. Mast cells are generally found in the intestines and airways, which causes them to become more susceptible to allergens.
When the antibodies and allergen bind to the mast cell, it releases a chemical called histamine that causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
What Are the Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction?
Common symptoms of an allergic reaction to inhaled or skin allergens include:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Itchy or runny nose
- Feeling tired or ill
- Hives (a rash with raised red patches)
Exposures to ingested allergens or under the skin contact can cause different allergic reactions:
- An allergic reaction to food allergens can cause stomach cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea.
- An allergic reaction to a sting from a bee or other insect causes swelling, redness, and pain to the area that was stung.
The severity of the symptoms of an allergic reaction varies from person to person:
- With mild symptoms, you might just feel a little “off” or not even notice them.
- Moderate symptoms can make you feel like you have a cold or the flu.
- Severe symptoms can be very uncomfortable and sometimes incapacitating.
Anaphylaxis is the most severe type of allergic reaction. In anaphylaxis, the whole body can be affected by the allergen:
- Hives and itching all over (not just in the exposed area)
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
- Hoarse or tight throat
- Tingling in the hands, feet, lips, or scalp
Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms can progress rapidly, so head for the emergency room if there’s any suspicion of anaphylaxis.
How are allergies treated?
There is a wide range of treatments available depending on the type of allergy and severity of the allergy. Treatments may include but not limited to the following:
- Capsules and pills
- Eye drops
- Nasal sprays
- Creams and ointments for the skin
- Lung inhalers
We make appropriate recommendations for each patient in conjunction with their primary care physicians.