An allergy is an exaggerated response from your immune system to a normally harmless substance. Common allergens (the name given to these trigger substances) include pollen, mold, dust mites, pet dander, food and chemicals. Allergies affect about one out of every five Americans.
What Are Allergies?
Allergies are your immune system’s exaggerated response to a substance that is deemed a threat but is actually harmless. When this substance is inhaled, swallowed or comes into contact with your skin, your immune system defends your body by releasing chemicals that attack the invader. These chemicals cause unpleasant symptoms such as runny nose, itchiness, watery eyes, rashes or hives, etc.
Who Develops Allergies?
Allergies can affect people of all ages, races and lifestyles. They are most common in children, but can occur at any age. There does appear to be a genetic predisposition toward developing allergies; a child who has a parent suffering from allergies is more likely to experience them.
Can Allergies Be Prevented?
Certain types of allergies can be prevented by avoiding contact with the allergen. If you are allergic to a specific food, simply eliminate it from your diet. Other allergens are difficult to avoid, though steps can be taken to limit exposure. These include staying indoors during peak pollen times, purchasing allergy-safe bedding and investing in a dehumidifier to reduce moisture.
What Causes Allergies?
Your immune system is your body’s first line of defense against germs and bacteria. Comprised of cells, proteins, tissues and organs, it is essential in maintaining your health and preventing infections. When a threat is perceived, the immune system responds by attacking the substances that are invading the body.
Allergies are the result of the immune system responding in an over protective manner to a harmless substance. When an allergen is encountered, antibodies – proteins designed to protect against foreign invaders – are produced. These trigger the release of chemicals called histamines, which are responsible for the telltale symptoms of allergies.
What Are the Symptoms of Allergies?
Allergies may be seasonal or occur year-round. Hay fever caused by pollen from grasses, trees and weeds is the most common seasonal allergy. Symptoms include:
- Stuffy and/or runny nose.
- Itchiness in the nose and throat.
- Postnasal drip.
- Itchy, watery eyes.
- Pressure in the ears.
Year-round allergies produce the same symptoms; common ones are mold, dust mites, pet dander, environmental irritants like smog or smoke, medications and chemicals. Insect stings and bites fall in this category, too. They can produce a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
How Are Allergies Treated?
Allergies can be treated through prevention, medication or immunotherapy. Prevention involves avoiding contact with the allergen that triggers your symptoms. Medications include antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays, eye drops and corticosteroids. Those who are unable to avoid allergy triggers and do not find relief from medications may be candidates for immunotherapy.
This long-term treatment plan involves introducing small amounts of allergen into your body over a period of time in order to build up immunity. Immunotherapy may be administered in the form of injections (allergy shots) or orally (droplets under the tongue).
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