Q: What are allergies?

A: Allergies are the result of the immune system reacting to a substance it considers a threat once it enters the body. After inhaling, swallowing or coming into physical contact with the allergen, the immune system mounts a defense by producing antibodies called histamines – chemical substances designed to repel the invader. Histamines cause inflammation and swelling that leads to cold-like symptoms such as runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, cough, itchy or watery eyes, hives, shortness of breath and more.

Q: What causes allergies?

A: Many otherwise ordinary substances can trigger allergy attacks. The most common are pollen from grasses, trees and weeds; mold spores; dust mites; pet dander; smoke or pollution; foods; chemicals; and various medications.

Q: Who suffers from allergies?

A: Allergies are especially common in children, but can affect patients of all ages. They are hereditary, meaning if a parent has allergies, the child is more likely to develop them. There is also some evidence that persons born during pollen season are more predisposed to suffer from allergies, as well.

Q: How can I tell which substance I am allergic to?

A: Allergy testing is very effective in pinpointing the allergens responsible for your symptoms. Skin prick testing is considered the most reliable, but blood tests are an alternative for patients who cannot tolerate skin tests.

Q: How are allergies treated?

A: The most effective allergy treatments are prevention, medication and immunotherapy. Avoiding the substance(s) that cause symptoms is best, but can be difficult. Over-the-counter and prescription medications – antihistamines, decongestants, saline or steroid sprays and eye drops offer quick (but temporary) relief. Immunotherapy can be an effective long-term solution for many. Small doses of allergen are either injected or swallowed on a regular basis over a period of time, allowing your body to build up a tolerance to the allergen and eventually develop immunity.

Q: Can allergies be prevented?

A: You can prevent allergies by avoiding the substances that trigger symptoms, but this is difficult and in some cases simply not possible. Reducing exposure can help; strategies include keeping the windows rolled up, running the air conditioner, staying indoors during peak pollen times, using allergy-safe bedding and washing sheets and pillowcases regularly to reduce the threat of dust mites, avoiding pets with fur or feathers, and eliminating water sources from the home to combat the growth of mold.