Allergies occur when our bodies overreact to certain substances that we encounter in our environment. Millions of Americans suffer from allergies and it is one of the most common causes of absenteeism for work and school. Common symptoms of allergies include a runny nose, itchy eyes, swelling, asthma, and rashes. Substances, known as allergens, can cause allergic reactions when they are inhaled, ingested or touched. Allergens can be dust, pet dander, pollen, foods or ingredients in medications. When the body encounters an allergen, the body recognizes it as a foreign and harmful invader and starts to mount an attack to get it out of the body, hence the frequent sneezing, coughing and mucus production that commonly accompanies allergic reactions.
Often, people first experience an allergic reaction several times before the offending agent becomes obvious. If the reaction is severe or cause still not clear, allergy testing is recommended. First a thorough history and exam by a medical professional will be performed to shed light on possible causes. Types of allergy tests include IgE skin testing, challenge tests and blood tests.
Once the allergen is identified, avoidance is recommended. If avoidance is not possible, feasible or desired, there are a different therapies available to treat or prevent allergies. While avoidance is ideal for preventing allergic reactions, it is not always possible and avoidance does not necessarily stop the allergic reaction once it has begun. Medications are also available that can help prevent allergic reactions and treat minor symptoms while others are used for more serious allergic reactions.
Immunotherapy is a long-term and very effective way of treating allergies. It can be administered through injections or sublingual drops. Immunotherapy helps desensitize the body’s immune response to allergens by exposing the body to small, safe doses of the allergen. The doses are increased slowly over time in hopes that daily medication or avoidance is not needed long-term.
Over-the-counter and prescription medication for allergies exist and while they don’t prevent allergies long term, they can minimize or prevent the allergic reaction while the medication is active in the body. Most of these medications, known as antihistamines, are now available in adult and child formulations. More severe reactions, especially those that affect breathing may require steroids or a medication called epinephrine to control the swelling that makes breathing and swallowing difficult. Many patients with asthma may have difficulty breathing when they are exposed to an allergen.