Allergies are a prevalent condition when the immune system perceives a harmless substance as a threat to the body. When the body encounters these perceived threats, known as allergens, the immune system overreacts and triggers a range of sneezing, coughing, and itching.

Allergies cannot be cured, though they can be successfully managed with medications and avoid known triggers.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about allergies and about how Lompoc Valley Medical Center can diagnose allergies and help you manage your symptoms.

What Causes Allergies?

The exact cause of allergies is unknown, though researchers say allergies may be genetic and passed from parents to their children. Allergies tend to be more common among children and people with asthma or with a family history of asthma.

A variety of substances can trigger allergy symptoms. Common allergens include:

  • Certain foods such as cow’s milk, peanuts, and shellfish
  • Insect stings from bees, wasps, and mosquitoes
  • Pet dander
  • Mold
  • Dust mites
  • Pollen
  • Plant resin, such as that from poison oak and poison ivy
  • Latex
  • Metals
  • Medications, particularly penicillin

Types of Allergies

There are many types of allergies. Some allergies are seasonal, and others are year-round. Some allergies may be life-long.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are immune system responses that occur after eating certain foods. Allergic reactions to foods can be mild to severe and usually develop anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours after eating the food that triggers symptoms.

Common signs and symptoms of food allergies include:

  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, and throat
  • Itching or tingling sensation in the mouth
  • Hives or eczema (itchy inflammation of the skin)
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nasal congestion (stuffy nose)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness or fainting

Any food can trigger an allergic reaction. However, some foods are more likely to cause allergies than others. Foods that commonly trigger allergies include:

  • Nuts including peanuts, pecans, and walnuts
  • Fish, particularly shellfish such as lobster, shrimp, and crab
  • Eggs
  • Cow’s milk
  • Soy
  • Wheat

Seasonal Allergies

Seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever, are allergies that occur only during a particular season. An estimated 7.8% of adults in the U.S. suffer from seasonal allergies, usually triggered by pollen. Seasonal allergies will go away after the offending allergen no longer remains in the air.

Common signs and symptoms of seasonal allergies include:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery and itchy eyes
  • Itchy throat or ears
  • Itchy sinuses
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Postnasal drip (when mucus runs down the back of the nose to the throat to cause coughing and congestion)
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Cough

Skin Allergies

Skin allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to a harmless substance that comes into contact with the skin. Soaps, laundry detergent, wool, and stainless steel are some of the many allergens that can cause skin allergies.

There are three main types of skin allergies: eczema, hives, and contact dermatitis.

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is an itchy inflammation of the skin that causes a rash—particularly on the arms and back of the knees. Aside from causing itching and rash, eczema may cause redness, dryness, bumps, flaking, and peeling.

Hives, also known as urticaria, are raised, bumpy rashes that vary in shape and size. These rashes are red or skin-colored and can develop anywhere on the body. Itching is the main symptom of hives.

Contact dermatitis is a rash that develops immediately after the skin comes into contact with the allergen. The rash produced by this skin allergy is highly similar in appearance to the rash caused by eczema. Still, it occurs only in the spot that came into contact with the offending substance. The areas most commonly affected by contact dermatitis are the face, hands, neck, and feet.

How Are Allergies Diagnosed?

Visit your healthcare provider immediately if you think you may have allergies. Your doctor will review your medical history during your appointment, ask you about your symptoms, and perform a physical exam.

If you’ve taken note of any potential triggers, mention these to your doctor as well. Otherwise, your doctor may ask you to start a journal to track all your symptoms and possible triggers.

Allergies can be diagnosed with a blood test or skin test. A blood test can identify whether your blood contains immunoglobulin E, which are antibodies that cause allergies. A blood test is typically only used if your doctor thinks you may be at risk for experiencing a severe allergic reaction to one or more allergens.

During a skin test, your doctor will prick your skin and expose you to small amounts of common allergens or the suspected allergen. For example, if you think you may be allergic to peanuts, your doctor will expose you to small amounts of the proteins found in peanuts. If you develop a rash or hives at the test site, your doctor may diagnose you with a peanut allergy.

If your symptoms resemble those of another health problem, your doctor may perform other tests to diagnose or rule out other medical conditions.

Allergies Complications

Anaphylaxis is the most common complication associated with allergies—particularly allergies to foods, insect stings, medications, and latex. Anaphylaxis is a severe and life-threatening whole-body reaction to an allergen. Symptoms usually occur immediately within seconds or minutes after exposure to the allergen.

Anaphylaxis symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Chest tightness or discomfort
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Itching skin
  • Hives
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heart palpitations
  • Swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Loss of consciousness

Anaphylaxis is a medical condition that should be treated immediately to prevent additional complications, including a blocked airway, cardiac arrest, stopped breathing, and shock. Contact emergency medical services immediately if you or someone else is experiencing anaphylaxis.

Other potential complications associated with allergies include asthma, sinus infection, ear infection, and lung infection. People with allergies are often more likely to have asthma than people without allergies. Infections are more likely to affect people who suffer from seasonal allergies or asthma.

Common Allergy Treatments

Allergies are typically treated using medications, immunotherapy, and epinephrine—the latter is used during emergencies caused by anaphylaxis. Your doctor can also work with you to manage and avoid triggers that cause your symptoms.

Medications

Medications can often reduce and control your allergy symptoms and help you find relief.

Nasal corticosteroids (nose sprays) can reduce swelling that may be contributing to itching or a stuffy or runny nose. In contrast, oral corticosteroids can help reduce swelling and severe allergic reactions. Topical corticosteroids may be used to relieve itching and skin rashes. Antihistamines can often relieve hives, sneezing, itching, and runny nose, while decongestants may help relieve a stuffy nose.

Other medications and medicines used to treat allergies include cetirizine, loratadine, cromolyn sodium, and leukotriene modifiers. Your doctor can recommend the best medications for you based on your type of allergies, symptoms, and severity of symptoms.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy may be used to help your body become less allergic to allergens. This treatment involves exposing you to the allergen in doses that are increased gradually over time, which helps your immune system become less sensitive to that particular allergen. Immunotherapy for allergies is available in allergy shots and as sublingual (under the tongue) dissolvable tablets.

Epinephrine

Your doctor may provide you with an emergency epinephrine shot if you have a severe, life-threatening allergy that may cause anaphylaxis. Epinephrine comes in an easy-to-use self-injectable device that you can administer right away when you experience a serious reaction to an allergen. These injections are often used to treat reactions to stinging insects, foods, latex, and medications and are intended to reduce your symptoms until you can receive emergency medical treatment.

Avoid using natural remedies for allergies unless you receive approval from your doctor. The FDA does not approve many natural remedies. They may worsen your symptoms or interact with the medications you’re currently taking.

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