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Allergies GOTCHA? Here’s Help

Allergy image

An allergy develops when the body’s immune system becomes sensitized and overreacts to a foreign substance that ordinarily is harmless. An allergic reaction can occur whenever the allergy-causing substance – called an allergen – is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed on contact with the skin.

When an allergen enters the blood stream, it stimulates the production of an allergic antibody called immunoglobulin E. When IgE reacts with an allergen, it triggers the production of histamine and other chemicals that cause blood vessels to widen, smooth muscles to contract, and affected skin areas to become red, itchy, and swollen. The inflammation and irritation produced by these chemicals can affect many parts of the body – the nose, eyes, lungs, skin, or digestive system.

Diagnosis
Allergy diagnosis requires skill, planning, and close cooperation between you and your doctor. The doctor usually begins by taking a detailed history. Information about your work and home environment, eating habits, and family medical history often provides clues that can help pinpoint the problem.

A physical examination and laboratory tests also may be performed. The most common allergy test is an allergy skin test, which introduces small amounts of the suspected allergen into the skin. A positive reaction – a welt, swelling, or inflammation on the skin – indicates the presence of allergic antibodies.

Sometimes, blood samples are taken to detect the extent of antibody production against an allergen. If a food allergy is suspected, you may be asked to keep a daily food diary listing all food and medication ingested or to follow a special diet.

The best treatment for allergy is to avoid the allergen that triggers an attack.

Sometimes, blood samples are taken to detect the extent of antibody production against an allergen. If a food allergy is suspected, you may be asked to keep a daily food diary listing all food and medication ingested or to follow a special diet.

Treatment
Once an allergy has been diagnosed, a number of treatment options are available. Your doctor will work with you to determine the best treatment approach, depending on the frequency, duration, and severity of your allergy symptoms. Among the options for treating allergy are strategies to avoid or reduce exposure to allergens, medications to control allergy symptoms, or immunotherapy (allergy shots) to build the body’s resistance to allergens.

Avoidance
The best treatment for allergy is to avoid the allergen that triggers an attack. This is relatively easy if the problem is feather pillows, dustcatching furniture, or a certain food that can be removed from the diet. Allergens such as plant pollen and molds, however, are difficult to escape.

For example, ragweed is found throughout the United States. Pet owners who are allergic to animal dander may be reluctant to give up a favorite pet. Even moving to a new climate doesn’t always solve the problem, and so drastic a measure is seldom recommended. Although some people find relief in regions of the country where a particular allergen is not present, others find they escape one allergy-causing substance only to develop sensitivity to another.

When it is not possible to avoid the substances that trigger allergy symptoms, steps can be taken to decrease exposure. Air conditioners or electronic air filters may help prevent outside allergens from finding their way inside. Outdoor activities can be restricted when pollen counts are high. Wearing a face mask outdoors during pollination seasons also may be helpful. A healthy lifestyle, including a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, proper rest, and avoidance of stress and general pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, is an important measure that will not cure an allergy but will contribute to better resistance.

Medications
When allergens cannot be avoided, many medications are available that often can control the symptoms of allergy. Medications come in many forms, including tablets, nasal sprays, eye drops, creams, and liquids. Decongestants and antihistamines, which help to reduce nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and itching, are the most commonly used allergy medications. Other medications, such as cromolyn, work by inhibiting the release of the chemicals that cause allergic reactions. For severe cases, corticosteroids may be prescribed to counteract inflammation.

The proper choice of medications and the timing and dosage for taking allergy medications are important to successful control. Your doctor will work with you to determine the appropriate medications and dosage.

Immunotherapy
Allergen immunotherapy, known as “allergy shots,” may be recommended if you don’t respond well to treatment with medications, experience side effects from medications, or are subjected to frequent exposure to an allergen. In immunotherapy, injections of a diluted allergy extract are given at variable intervals over a period of three to five years. The therapy helps the body build resistance to the effects of the allergen and can reduce the intensity of allergy symptoms.

Living with Allergies
The allergic tendency is often an inherited, lifelong condition that cannot be cured, but this does not mean that a person has to “live with” the unpleasant symptoms of allergies. In the great majority of cases, your doctor can work with you to develop a strategy to control allergies so that you remain symptom-free and are able to lead a normal life.

 

Source: American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, www.acaai.org

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, May/June 2009.