Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to a substance that's harmless to most people. In someone with an allergy, the body's immune system treats the substance (called an allergen) as an invader and reacts inappropriately, resulting in symptoms that can be anywhere from annoying to life-threatening. Up to 50 million Americans, including millions of kids, have some type of allergy. A person can be allergic to just about anything, but there are many common allergies affecting many people.
Less Common Allergens:
What happens during an Allergic Reaction?
During an allergic reaction, the body is simply trying to do its job by attacking what it thinks is a harmful invader. When the offending allergen enters the body, the body produces antibodies. Those antibodies then attach to a blood cell in your body called a mast cell. The mast cell then attracts the allergens to it which causes it to to release a variety of chemicals including histamine, which causes most of the symptoms of an allergy. The symptoms will will likely occur in the area of the body through which the allergen entered. For example, if the allergen is in the air (such as pollen or dust mights), the syptoms will likely occur in your nose, eyes, and lungs. If the allergen was in a food, the symptoms will likely occur in your mouth, stomach, or intestines. Sometimes though, so many chemicals are released from the mast cells that it causes a reaction throughout the body, such as hives, decreased blood pressure, shock, or loss of consciousness.
Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction:
Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, allergen to allergen, and even to the number of exposures to a particular allergen. Generally, allergy symptoms can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe (anaphylactic).
- Mild reactions include those symptoms that are limited to a specific area of the body such as a rash, sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, and nasal congestion. Mild reactions do not spread to other parts of the body.
- Moderate reactions include symptoms that spread to other parts of the body. These may include itchiness and hives all over the body or difficulty breathing.
- A severe reaction, called anaphylaxis, is a rare, life-threatening emergency. Anaphylaxis can happen within seconds of being exposed to an allergen or can be delayed for up to 2 hours if the reaction is from a food. It can involve various areas of the body. It can begin with a more local reaction such as itching of the eyes or face and can progress very rapidly to more serious symptoms, including abdominal pain, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea, as well difficulty breathing and swallowing. A person experiencing an Anaphalactic reaction may also show signs of mental confusion, dizziness, or fainting since since anaphylaxis can cause a quick drop in blood pressure. Anyone experiencing an Anaphalactic reaction need immediate emergency care.
Treatment for Allergies
There is no cure for allergies, but there are many ways to reduce your symptoms. The number one way is to avoid the particular thing(s) causing your allergic reaction. For example, if you are allergic to strawberries, don't eat or handle strawberries. Of course, many people are allergic to things that can't be avoided, such as pollen or dust mites. Since these things are in the air, and we all need air to survive, those types of allergens are a little harder to avoid. Fortunately, there are many medications available - both over-the-counter and prescription - to make life a little more bearable for allergy sufferers. These include antihistamines, decongestants, combination medicines, corticosteroids and others. Allergy shots, which gradually increase your ability to tolerate allergens, are also available.
Antihistamines commonly used include:
- Over-the-counter: Benadryl, Claritin, Chlor-Trimeton, Dimetane and Tavist. Ocu-Hist is an OTC eye drop.
- Prescription: Clarinex, Allegra, and Zyrtec.
* The most common side effects of antihistamines include drowsiness and dry mouth.
Corticosteroids reduce inflammation associated with allergies. They are most often used to prevent and treat nasal stuffiness, sneezing, and itchy, runny nose due to seasonal or year-round allergies. They can also be used to decrease inflammation and swelling from other types of allergic reactions. Many times, corticosteroids are prescribed in addition to other allergy medications.
Some Corticosteroids include:
- Nasal corticosteroids: Rhinocort, Flonase, Nasonex and Nasocort, used to treat nasal allergy symptoms.
- Inhaled corticosteroids: Beclovent, Pulmicort, Flovent, and Azmacort, used to treat asthma.
- Eye drops: Dexamethasone, Alrex.
- Oral steroids: Prednisone.
* Corticosteroids can have many possible side effects, especially when given for long periods of time. Some possible side effects include: weight gain, fluid retention, high blood pressure, growth suppression, cataracts, bone thinning osteoporosis, & muscle weakness.
Allergy shots, may be the most effective form of treatment if you suffer from allergies more than three months of the year. The purpose of allergy shots is to teach your body's immune system to stop overreacting to allergens. The shots expose you to gradually increasing levels of the offending allergen to help your immune system build tolerance. Allergy shots do not work in reducing the symptoms of food allergies.
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