Allergies are one of the most common chronic medical conditions. When a person is allergic to something, it means that their immune system mistakes a normally harmless substance for an invasive one. When the person comes in contact with that substance, which is called an allergen, the immune system overreacts.
That allergic reaction varies according to the individual and it can be annoying, painful, debilitating or life-threatening. It’s estimated that more than 100 million people in the U.S. experience various types of allergies each year.
Symptoms vary according to the type of allergy.
- A respiratory allergy might cause sneezing, a runny nose, watery eyes, and itching of the eyes, nose or mouth.
- A cutaneous, or skin allergy, might cause a rash, itching, and burning on one part of the body or a wide swath.
- A food allergy could affect, among other things, the gastrointestinal system, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
- An allergic reaction to an insect sting might cause swelling around the sting, itching or hives, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction.
Common Allergy Conditions
Here are some of the most common allergies and allergy-related conditions:
- Hay fever. This is the common term for allergic rhinitis. Rhinitis means inflammation of the nose, but this allergy also can affect the eyes. Its triggers include pollen from weeds, grasses, and trees, which may result in seasonal outbreaks, as well as dust mites, pet dander, and mold.
- Food allergies. The most common allergies are to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, eggs and milk. Food allergies tend to come on quickly and can be severe.
- Insect allergies. Reactions can be triggered by the venom of stinging insects like bees and wasps, bites from insects like mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks, and the saliva and body parts of cockroaches and dust mites.
- Drug allergies. This can involve over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies, and prescriptions. Drug allergies are rare and involve the immune system. People can experience side effects from a drug and other adverse effects without being allergic. Penicillin is known as a drug that people may be allergic to, and it is one of the few drugs for which an allergy test is available.
- Contact dermatitis. An allergy to latex is a common cause of contact dermatitis, which is a reaction to exposure to a substance that irritates the skin or causes an allergic reaction.
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis). More than 31 million people in the U.S. have eczema, and atopic dermatitis is its most common form. Atopic dermatitis stems from an overreaction by the immune system that results in dry, itchy skin. It is not contagious.
- Hives (urticaria) and swelling (angioedema). Hives (also called urticaria or welts) are raised, itchy areas on the skin, ranging in size from small blots to large patches. Angioedema, which may accompany hives or may occur on its own, is swelling below the skin’s surface. It generally appears on the face, neck, feet, and hands.
- Chronic cough. If a cough lasts for eight weeks or more in an adult, and four weeks or more in a child, it is considered to be a chronic cough and requires medical treatment. This condition can be caused by asthma and allergies like hay fever.
- Laryngeal dysfunction, laryngeal hypersensitivity, cough hypersensitivity syndrome, vocal cord dysfunction. A cough is one of the most common symptoms for people who seek help from allergists. The first three terms are related to the function of the throat and its possible role in chronic cough. Vocal cord dysfunction makes it difficult to breathe because the vocal cords won’t open all the way. It’s sometimes misdiagnosed as asthma, but it is not an allergic reaction.
- Eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). This chronic immune system disease occurs when too many eosinophils, a type of white blood cell, gather in the esophagus and cause inflammation, swelling, and scarring. Allergic reactions to foods are the main cause of EoE.
- Nasal polyps. These soft, painless, noncancerous growths in your nasal passages can be allergy-related, but they occur for a variety of other reasons.
Scientists don’t have a clear picture of what makes a person’s immune system react to an otherwise harmless substance as if it were a threat. Whatever the reason, a person’s immune system identifies something such as peanuts or latex as an invader. When that substance is encountered, the body produces antibodies to fight it as if it were a virus or harmful bacteria. The antibodies release histamine and several other chemicals that cause an allergic reaction. We don’t know why some people are allergic and others are not — but allergies tend to run in families.
An allergic reaction can bring on further complications, as well. Among them are:
- Anaphylaxis. Anaphylactic shock can be fatal if not treated quickly. It can include a drop in blood pressure accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, a weak pulse, and vomiting.
- Asthma. This chronic breathing condition can develop more easily in a person with an allergy or increase a person’s odds of developing an allergy.
- Sinusitis. People with allergies are more likely to get sinus infections.
- Poor sleep, lack of concentration, and fatigue. Allergy symptoms cause these problems.
- Otitis media. When an allergy blocks the Eustachian tubes, which connect your middle ear and throat, it can lead to this infection of the middle ear.
- Bronchitis. People with asthma, COPD, and certain autoimmune disorders are more at risk for this condition, which involves inflammation and blockage of the lungs’ airways, the bronchial tubes.
- Pneumonia. People with asthma are more susceptible to this lung infection.
When to See a Doctor
If you are troubled by symptoms that may be caused by an allergy and over-the-counter medicines and home remedies don’t help, contact a doctor. However, if you experience the symptoms of a severe reaction, such as anaphylaxis, seek emergency help, such as calling 911.
Prevention and Treatment
The first line of defense is to learn the triggers for an allergy and avoid them.
Treatment will depend on the specific allergy. Many options are available, including nasal sprays, decongestants, antihistamines, steroids and immunotherapy, a treatment that encourages development of a tolerance to allergens. A doctor might prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector in case of a life-threatening reaction.
Visit a Specialist
The Florida Medical Clinic Department of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology can provide a full array of services for diagnosis, allergy treatment and asthma treatment. We’ll help you develop a management plan based on your diagnosis and treatment goals so you can get back to enjoying your life. Contact us today to find out how our team of certified allergists can help you breathe easier.
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