An allergy is the condition of the response of a human body’s immune system to allergens, such as pollens, foods, and dust mites. While most people display no reactions to these substances, allergic individuals’ immune systems identify them as dangerous and an exaggerated, defensive response is produced. Allergies are extremely common. Health agencies estimate that approximately 20% of people in North America and Western Europe suffer from some degree of hay fever.
An allergic reaction happens when a person with an allergy is exposed to an allergen by either inhaling, touching or swallowing it. The bodily processes that create an allergic reaction to exposure include the release of chemicals into the bloodstream, including histamine, that causes most of the symptoms one experiences as part of a reaction.
What are the symptoms?
An allergic reaction is not always immediate – the immune system gradually builds up sensitivity to the substance before reacting to it. One’s immune system takes its time to recognize and attack an allergen – as it becomes sensitive to it, it starts producing antibodies to attack it, in a process called sensitization which can take days or even years. The symptoms involved in an allergic reaction reflect irritation and inflammation in the body. They depend on the type of allergen and can occur in the digestive system, skin, respiratory system, sinuses and eyes.
Reactions to dust and pollen, food allergens, insect stings or medicines can include a stuffed nose, itching in the eyes, runny nose, swelling and cough, skin rash, vomiting, swelling in the mouth and face, stomach cramps and diarrhea, drops in blood pressure, itching, hives, dizziness and chest tightness. Medicines can also cause allergic reactions and even anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a serious (sometimes life-threatening) level of whole-body allergic reaction that takes place very fast (within a few minutes or hours) and must be addressed as a medical emergency.
What are the Treatments?
There are different types of treatments for allergies. Avoiding allergic reactions involves first identifying an individual’s sensitivities and then taking steps to reduce exposure. There are various medications used to treat allergies. One type, antihistamines, block the production of histamine as part of an allergic reaction, thereby stopping the symptoms. Some of these medications, given mostly over-the-counter, are known to cause drowsiness. Antihistamines come in the form of pills and creams, as well as nasal and eye sprays. Intranasal cortiocosteroid nasal sprays (INCS) treat hay fever, with stronger version requiring a prescription. Medicated eye drops are widely available for hay fever symptoms. Adrenaline is used as an emergency treatment for cases of anaphylaxis.
Non-medicated treatments, such as saline douches and sprays, are used for treating allergic rhinitis and sinusitis. Specific allergen immunotherapy (also known as desensitization) is a long-term treatment that attempts to change a person’s immune system response to an allergen through the administration of gradually increasing amounts of allergen extracts to build immunity. Some individuals also take medications seasonally in order to prevent allergic reactions rather than address already existing reactions.
Saline sprays, “neti pots,” and adding certain items to one’s diet, like probiotics or locally grown honey, have all been advocated as natural remedies for allergies.
Do you have questions about allergies? Can you recommend treatments that have worked for you? Let us know in the comments below…