Allergies 101

In spring, people with seasonal allergies begin to dread going outdoors. The blooming plants and greening trees signal the beginning of watery eyes and itchy noses – not to mention sneezing, coughing and wheezing.

Allergies are an immune system response to an otherwise harmless substance. The immune system releases histamines to protect the body from the allergen. Histamines cause the familiar litany of miserable allergy symptoms, as well as a dangerous reaction called anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is a life threatening response to an allergen treated with injections of epinephrine. Anytime you use epinephrine, you should go immediately to a hospital, even if you feel better right away, because epinephrine can cause symptoms of its own.

Other possible treatments for allergies include antihistamines, decongestants, corticosteroids, Leukotriene inhibitors, inhalers or other asthma medications or desensitization through a series of shots that contain small doses of the allergens to help desensitize the immune system. The best way to control allergic reactions is to avoid the allergen, but this is not always possible.

The most common allergens are everyday substances such as dust, mold, pollen and pet dander, but people are also allergic to specific foods such as peanuts, shellfish or milk, and to drugs, certain fabrics or perfumes. Food allergies and insect bites are especially likely to lead to anaphylaxis, so it's important to avoid these triggers if you are sensitive to them.

If you suspect that you have allergies, your doctor may do a series of tests to try to pinpoint the substances that cause your problems. The most common test involves placing the suspected allergen on the skin and then pricking the skin so a small amount of the substance gets absorbed. Within a few minutes, the area will turn red and itchy or develop a bump if an allergy exists. The doctor may also test your blood for immunoglobulin E (IgE) or other allergy related substances. Doctors usually diagnose food allergies through an elimination diet to see if allergy symptoms subside when the patient doesn't eat the food for a few weeks.

People don't inherit specific allergies, but the tendency to develop allergies increases if your parents have them. The easiest way to control allergies is to avoid the allergen, but since this isn't always possible, it's comforting to know that medications can help.

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