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 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.
There are countless types of allergies; each type has its own set of symptoms, which can range from mild to life threatening.
Allergies fall under two categories: seasonal and perennial. The latter occurs year-round, while seasonal allergies appear during specific times of the year, generally during spring when trees and flowers bloom. They can also occur in the fall, when ragweed is at its worst. Seasonal allergies are often referred to as hay fever.
There are steps you can take to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. Avoiding the allergy trigger is first and foremost. Stay indoors when pollen counts are at their peak, especially on dry, windy days. This usually occurs during the early morning and evening hours. Close windows and run the air conditioner.
If you have to go outside, wear sunglasses and consider a dust mask. When driving, keep the windows rolled up and the AC running. Back indoors, change out of the clothing you wore, and shower to rinse away pollen from your skin and hair. Using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter indoors can help keep the air clean.
Over-the-counter medications can help relieve seasonal allergy symptoms. Antihistamines will help reduce sneezing, itching, watery eyes and runny nose. Popular choices include Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra and Alavert. Decongestants such as Sudafed and nasal sprays like Afrin help with nasal congestion.
Irrigating the nasal passages with a Neti pot or similar rinse can also prove beneficial. If medical treatment is ineffective, talk to your doctor about alternative options such as immunotherapy (allergy shots).
How Are Allergies Treated?
Avoiding the allergen trigger is the best method of preventing allergy attacks. Medications are available to reduce your immune system’s reaction and provide symptom relief; drugs such as antihistamines, decongestants and corticosteroids can all prove helpful.
Those whose allergies do not respond to medical treatment may be given allergy shots (immunotherapy) in an effort to build up a tolerance to the offending substance through regular injections given for several years.
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