Allergies are a common ailment, especially when you consider how many types of allergies there are. The first thing that may come to mind is seasonal allergies, or hay fever, and while this may be the most common source of reactions, there are so many more.
What is an allergy, and how does it work? What are the different types of allergies out there, what causes them, and how do you prevent and treat an allergic reaction? It’s important to know how to identify allergies, especially the typical symptoms experienced with each type of reaction so that you can find the right treatment, as well as prevent severe reactions.
What are allergies?
An allergy what happens when the body’s immune system reacts in a damaging way to some substance. Depending on the type of allergy, it could be coming into direct contact with the substance, like a skin allergy, or simply being exposed to heavy amounts of the allergen (or substance that causes the response), as with pollen.
The immune system wouldn’t normally respond at all to these allergens. However, people with allergies have what could be described as an “altered” response or even hypersensitivity to the substance in question. There are dozens of types of allergies, and each type has its own set of symptoms and reactions. However, many of them are similar, and it’s important to understand the difference in order to better treat and prevent the allergic reaction.
Types of allergies
When it comes to suffering an allergic reaction, there could be a number of causes. People can have an allergy to a huge list of items, and knowing more about the possibilities can help protect everyone from the consequences of an allergy attack.
Seasonal Allergies (also called hay fever and allergic rhinitis) – Season allergies can be caused by several substances that are commonly heavily airborne during the spring, thus making them “seasonal”. Several pollens can be blamed for an allergy, including:
- Grass pollen (the most common among pollens)
- Tree pollen
- Pollen from weeds
A mold allergy is, likewise, a pretty common kind of seasonal allergy. The most common symptoms of hay fever include runny or stuffy nose, post nasal drip, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, and itchy nose and throat. Some rashes can occur as well. Keep in mind that an allergy to mold is similar to other seasonal allergies. The illness caused by black mold is not an allergy but rather a reaction to the poisonous nature of its spores.
Allergic rhinitis can be treated with over the counter antihistamines, as well as by prescription with nasal spray corticosteroids. In extreme cases, shots (immunotherapy) may be used as well.
Food allergies – As with an allergy to pollen, the immune system incorrectly recognizes the offensive food as a toxin to the body, which triggers the allergic reaction. Some of the most common food allergies are:
- Cow milk allergy (which includes byproducts)
- Egg allergy
- Tree nut allergy (almonds, walnuts, etc.)
- Peanut allergy
- Shellfish allergy (shrimp, lobster, squid, etc.)
- Wheat allergy (often a childhood problem that is outgrown)
- Soy allergy
- Fish allergy
A food allergy is far more severe in most people than a seasonal allergy and causes much nastier symptoms, such as hives, diarrhea, swelling of the tongue or face, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. In fact, a food allergy can easily lead to anaphylaxis. An intolerance is different and shouldn’t be treated like an allergy.
If the allergy is mild, an antihistamine will help alleviate the symptoms. For those with trouble breathing, a bronchodilator may be required. It might be good to carry an Epi-pen in case of anaphylaxis. Of course, avoiding the food in question is the best course of action.
Skin allergies – A skin allergy can be identified by symptoms such as redness, a rash, bumps, and itching.
Some of the more notable reactions are eczema, contact dermatitis, and hives, which are not only uncomfortable or even painful but also sometimes embarrassing. A skin allergy symptom can appear based on a number of things, including an infection, another type of allergy that causes skin irritation, or a condition like rosacea. Avoid scratching the area, take frequent baths to cleanse the allergy, and use a good, unscented moisturizer. You may also use an ointment like aloe vera or even cortisone to relieve itch and burn temporarily.
Dust and dander allergy – Dust in the home can trigger a negative reaction, as can the dander pets shed on a daily basis. Symptoms will resemble seasonal allergies but likely won’t slow down at the end of growing season. The first line of defense is to clean your home more often, dusting and vacuuming frequently. Another way to reduce allergens in the home is to change your air filter frequently and to invest in a separate filter to draw the particles out of the air in your home.
Allergic reactions to stings and bites – In insects that bite and sting, the venom they carry contains certain proteins. In many cases, those proteins cause an allergic reaction in people. Symptoms of an allergy to a bee sting or ant bite, for example, include sharp pain with a burning sensation, raised red skin around the sting or bite, and slight swelling
More alarming reactions include gradually increasing swelling, hives, swelling of the throat or tongue, abdominal pain or nausea and vomiting, trouble breathing, dizziness or strange pulse, and fainting. A mild allergy can be cured with a simple antihistamine, while more severe symptoms require an Epi-pen and medical attention.
Drug allergies – While medications are made to help relieve other problems, they can cause an allergic reaction. Most of those allergies are so minor they’re never even noticed, but serious symptoms might be:
- Trouble breathing
- Strange, fast, or irregular heartbeat
- Swelling, especially of the tongue or throat
The most common types of medications to cause a reaction are antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, anticonvulsants, chemotherapy drugs, and aspirin. These reactions are different than side effects and should be treated as such.
The best ways to avoid these reactions is to learn what medicines cause a reaction and avoid them. An allergy can usually be treated with a simple antihistamine. Other options are corticosteroids and bronchodilators.
Latex allergy – Much like an allergy to insect venom, the latex allergy is caused by the proteins in natural rubber latex. The most common symptoms are itching, redness, and rash, typically on the hands and found most often in the medical profession where latex products are everywhere. However, there is always a chance of life threatening symptoms, such as rapid or weak pulse, nausea and vomiting, difficulty breathing, and loss of consciousness.
Since latex is found in a lot of common household items, including some carpets, it’s hard to avoid. There’s no cure for these allergies, but using antihistamines and corticosteroids may help lessen the symptoms.
Potentially deadly reactions: Anaphylaxis and anaphylactic shock
Anaphylaxis is a very severe and potentially deadly allergic reaction. While it can be caused by several different types of allergens (medications, stings, latex, etc.), the most common cause is an allergy to food, such as peanuts. The condition doesn’t necessarily strike immediately and can occur hours after exposure to the allergen, with symptoms like:
- Difficulty breathing
- Gastrointestinal issues such as nausea and vomiting, paired with swollen lips or reduced blood pressure
On the other hand, anaphylactic shock occurs when someone goes into anaphylaxis and goes into shock because the body is deprived of something essential – adequate blood circulation or oxygen. Most of the time, the patient won’t reach that point, but it is always a possibility. Any time someone experiences anaphylaxis, it can be crucial to have an Epi-pen available for immediate use.
Aside from literally having a reaction, there are multiple ways to determine if you have an allergic reaction to a substance. It’s important to discuss potential symptoms with a physician so that the remedy can be chosen. Tests doctors use to diagnose allergies include:
- Skin Pricks – A liquid solution, which contains a small amount of the substance that may be causing the reaction, is dropped on your forearm, and that area is pricked with a needle. An allergy will appear as an itchy, red bump within about fifteen minutes.
- Blood Test – A sample of your blood is taken in order to discover a potential response when subjected to allergens, so that the antibodies produced by the immune system are found and can be treated.
- Patch Tests – This is for skin allergies resulting in contact dermatitis, a common type of eczema. Minute amounts of allergens that could be causing symptoms are placed on small metal discs that are adhered to your skin for 48 hours to determine if there is a reaction.
- Elimination Test – This is a way to identify a particular food allergy. If a food is suspected of causing the allergy, it will be removed from the diet for several weeks, then returned, so that the doctor can assess if there is another reaction.
- Challenge Tests – This is literally the opposite of the elimination diet and should not be performed without close supervision, since eating a large amount of a potential allergen could cause a severe reaction. At a clinic, the patient will be monitored as increasing amounts of the potentially offensive food are consumed.
Doctors are also likely to request medical history, since there are tons of exposures to foods, pollen, medications, and more through the years that caused the allergy.
Asthma and allergies
People with asthma already have a breathing condition, and their immune system is already compromised. Therefore, they are more likely to suffer from various types of allergies, and due to their condition, their symptoms are often worse. It’s crucial to discover allergies as soon as possible for asthma patients to avoid severe reactions.
Available treatments for allergies
In the past, aside from prevention and avoiding exposure to the allergen causing a reaction, antihistamines were the go-to medication for allergy sufferers, and in many cases, this is the right choice today. They can be purchased over the counter for relief and prevention of mild symptoms, so there’s no need to make a trip to the doctor’s office.
However, there are several more treatments available to help with more serious symptoms and to ease issues, most of which have very few side effects.
- Antihistamines – These work by blocking the production of histamine in the body, which is the substance created in response to the allergen and what actually causes the symptoms of allergies. These are available over the counter and by prescription and come in the form of pills, liquid, nasal sprays, and eye drops. Unfortunately, antihistamines tend to make people quite drowsy.
- Decongestants – This is a temporary solution to help ease congestion. They are also available in the same forms as antihistamines. They shouldn’t be taken as a long term solution since they can actually worsen the symptoms of allergies over time.
- Nasal Corticosteroids – This treatment works by reducing the inflammation caused in the nasal cavities and sinuses when there’s an allergic reaction. These have become more popular for treatment because they are safe to use on a long term basis and seem to work better than an antihistamine, and without the negative side effects. While the nasal spray works best, corticosteroids can also be taken orally, or they can be delivered as eye drops.
- Mast Cell Stabilizers – Mast cells are responsible for the making of histamine, which means this type of treatment helps stop them from producing more. These are the nasal sprays and eye drops often used to treat milder allergy symptoms. They help reduce inflammation that causes irritation to the eye or the nose. Types of mast cell stabilizers include cromolyn sodium, nedocromil, pemirolast, and lodoxamide-tromethamine.
- Leukotriene Modifiers – At the moment, the only such medication with FDA approval is Singulair, which requires a prescription. It treats nasal allergy symptoms as well as asthma, blocking the leukotrienes, or the chemicals that the body produces during an allergic reaction.
- Immunotherapy – In some cases, allergy shots may be prescribed to help the body “desensitize” to the allergen. This is a form of immunotherapy. The patient takes a regular injection that contains a minute amount of the offending allergen over the course of months or years to expose the immune system until it stops creating antibodies against the allergen.
Allergies: Other treatment possibilities
There are some things that can be done at home to get additional relief. The most common way to clear up an allergy is to flush the sinus cavities. Using a saline solution is the best course of action, with a spray or squeeze bottle as the recommended tool.
Other people are starting to try salt therapy, in which the patient enters a dry room that is sealed against humidity and breathes in air permeated by salt. These treatments can be found at a number of spas today and usually take about forty minutes to complete.Back to top