An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year. While there is no cure for most allergies, there are effective ways to help relieve the common symptoms. This article discusses the types of allergic reactions and explains how they can be prevented and treated.
What Causes an Allergic Reaction?
An allergy is the body’s reaction to substances that are normally harmless, for example, pollen, insect venom, dust, or animal fur. The substances that cause allergic reactions are called allergens.
What happens when you have an allergic reaction?
An allergic reaction occurs when your immune system mistakenly identifies an allergen as harmful. As a result, it releases histamine-producing antibodies that may cause inflammation in your airways, skin, sinuses, or digestive tract.
What causes allergies?
While the exact cause of allergies is still unknown, researchers believe that heredity plays an important role in developing allergic reactions. A genetic tendency to develop an immune response to otherwise harmless substances is known as atopy. When atopic individuals are exposed to allergens, they may get an immune reaction that leads to inflammation in the body.
The most common allergies include:
- Airborne substances or inhalants, such as pollen, animal dander, dust mites, and mold
- Certain foods. For adults, the most common food allergen is shellfish, followed by peanuts, and tree nuts, whereas most children are allergic to milk, eggs, and peanuts
- Insect stings, for example, a sting from a bee or wasp
- Medications, particularly penicillin and penicillin-based antibiotics
- Latex and fabrics that contain synthetic ingredients like formaldehyde resins and para-phenylenediamine.
Certain allergies occur year round, while others are seasonal, such as pollen allergies.
Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction
Allergies can affect your airways, sinuses and nasal passages, skin, or digestive system. The symptoms of an allergic reaction vary from person to person and can range from mild to severe.
Some types of allergies, including allergies to foods and insect stings, can trigger a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.
Mild allergic reactions affect a specific area, such as the skin, eyes, or nose, and they don’t spread to other parts of your body. Signs may include one or more of the following:
- Raised rash and itchy red spots on the skin (hives)
- Allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
- Nasal congestion and sneezing
- Watery or itchy eyes
- Scratchy throat
- Tingling sensation in your mouth or lips
Severe allergic reactions require emergency medical attention. The common signs include:
- Flushing of the face
- Swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain or tightness in the chest
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Heart palpitations
- Fear or anxiety
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Loss of consciousness
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction where the immune system releases a flood of chemicals that can cause you to go into shock. If it is not treated right away, it can be fatal. Symptoms to look for include:
- Swelling of the airway
- Severe shortness of breath
- An inability to breathe
- A sudden, severe drop in blood pressure.
How Is an Allergic Reaction Diagnosed?
Doctors typically diagnose allergies in three steps:
- Obtaining your family and personal medical history, including the kinds of medications you take and your lifestyle habits, in order to get a complete understanding of your symptoms and their possible causes.
- Performing a physical exam of your ears, eyes, nose, throat, chest, and skin, in addition to a lung function test and X-ray of your lungs or sinuses.
- Ordering allergy tests to determine your allergens.
There are different types of allergy testing available:
- Skin prick or patch tests where a small amount of a suspected allergen is applied to the skin to observe the reaction.
- Challenge or elimination-type tests used for diagnosing food allergies. These tests involve removing certain foods from your diet for several weeks and monitoring your symptoms after you start eating the food again.
- Blood tests to check your blood for antibodies against a possible allergen.
Treatment for an Allergic Reaction
There is currently no cure for allergies and most allergies are life-long. Nevertheless, some people and children in particular, may naturally outgrow allergies if their bodies develop tolerance to an allergen.
If you experience allergic reactions, your doctor or allergist will start by identifying your allergy triggers. They will then propose a management plan and prescribe medications or other therapies as needed.
The treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms and may include:
- Allergy medications
- Non-medicated interventions
- Allergen immunotherapy
- Emergency medications for severe allergic reactions
In most cases, over-the-counter antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) are effective in controlling the symptoms of mild allergic reactions. These medications work by blocking histamine release from immune cells. Non-sedating antihistamine tablets, as well as nasal and eye sprays, are available from pharmacies without a prescription.
Prescription medications used to treat mild allergies include:
- Intranasal corticosteroid sprays
- Anti-inflammatory corticosteroid tablets and topical creams
- Medicated eye drops
Non-medicated saline sprays are typically used for treating allergic rhinitis and sinusitis. Natural remedies and supplements, such as butterbur root, quercetin, bromelain, vitamin C, vitamin D, and probiotics, may be an effective alternative to allergy medications with fewer side effects.
Allergen immunotherapy, also known as desensitization, is a treatment that changes the response of your immune system to allergens. Desensitization involves administering increasing amounts of allergen extracts to help the body gradually get used to the allergen and reduce the risk of severe reactions. An immunotherapy treatment may be given in the form of injections, sublingual tablets, sprays, and drops.
Emergency medications for severe allergic reactions
Epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen, Adrenaclick, Auvi-Q) is a device that contains epinephrine (adrenaline). It works by opening your airways and raising blood pressure and is prescribed as a standard treatment for anaphylaxis. You should use your epinephrine auto-injector immediately after experiencing a severe allergic reaction.
How to Prevent an Allergic Reaction
Although you may not be able to avoid an allergic reaction completely, there are some steps that can help you prevent future allergic reactions.
Avoid known triggers
The best way to avoid having an allergic reaction is to avoid exposure to the allergen whenever possible. For example, if you are allergic to pollen, you should stay inside when pollen is high. If you are allergic to dust mites, you need to dust and vacuum often.
Keep an allergy diary
Track your activities, the food you eat, and the times when your allergy symptoms occur. This may help you and your healthcare provider identify the causes of your allergy and determine the factors that make your symptoms worse.
Wear a medical alert bracelet
A medical alert bracelet lets others know that you have a serious allergy in case you develop a reaction and are unable to communicate. The bracelet will help emergency responders administer appropriate treatment.
Seek medical care
If you have symptoms caused by an allergy, your non-prescription allergy medications don’t provide relief or cause side effects, or if you have had severe allergy attacks in the past, make an appointment at your nearest Centers Urgent Care. Our highly-trained medical professionals will evaluate and diagnose your symptoms and create a management plan.