Allergies refer to reactions that happen when the immune system mistakenly detects something as a threat, such as pet dander or peanuts. These reactions occur while the immune system tries to fight the perceived threat and destroy it. Allergic reactions vary widely depending on the allergen involved and how sensitive the individual is to it. Milder symptoms of allergic reactions include a stuffy nose, a mild skin rash, itchy eyes, and sneezing. Serious symptoms that require immediate medical care include a sudden decrease in blood pressure, trouble breathing, loss of consciousness, vomiting, a severe skin rash, and dizziness. Food allergies, insect bite allergies, and drug allergies are most likely to cause potentially life-threatening reactions. Seasonal allergies and skin allergies known as atopic dermatitis don’t cause this type of reaction.
Allergies develop when the body produces antibodies in response to the presence of a certain substance, such as dust mites, pollen, bee stings, or penicillin. These antibodies react any time the body is exposed to these substances, which triggers allergic reactions. Risk factors for allergies include having a family history of allergies and having asthma.
Diagnosing allergies involves a physical exam and tests to determine if potential allergens are responsible for reactions. These tests include skin tests and blood tests. During skin tests, patients are exposed to a tiny amount of protein found in specific allergens. Hives at the test site indicate a reaction to that allergen. Blood tests show the amount of antibodies present in the blood. These antibodies are the ones that trigger allergic reactions.
One of the most effective ways to prevent allergic reactions is by avoiding exposure to allergens. Depending on the allergen involved, this might mean avoiding certain foods, staying away from cats and dogs, staying indoors on days with high pollen levels, or avoiding certain medications. Other types of treatments for allergies include over-the-counter and prescription medications for easing symptoms and immunotherapy injections that are mainly used for severe or frequent allergies. Those who are at risk of potentially life-threatening allergic reactions can carry emergency epinephrine on them to reduce severe symptoms quickly.
To learn more about allergies, including allergy treatments, please contact James E. Race, MD.
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