Spring has arrived, and many folks are suffering from seasonal allergies.
So here at Fr33 Aid, we decided to put together a quick FAQ on allergies to answer some questions. This information can be helpful whether you have an allergy yourself or know someone who does.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is essentially a condition in which a person’s immune system overreacts to a particular stimulus. The stimulus need not be harmful itself; the problem is the body’s reaction to it.
The body’s response to this stimulus is called an allergic reaction.
What causes an allergic reaction?
Many things can cause an allergic reaction; a substance that causes an allergic reaction is called an allergen. People require previous exposure to a substance for it to become an allergen, but since a person cannot know everything that they have been exposed to in life, one cannot use this as a guide on whether or not they may develop an allergy to a substance.
Here are the primary categories of allergens; a few examples are provided:
Food: peanuts, nuts, shellfish, soy, eggs
Plants / Environmental: ragweed, grass, trees, mold, dust (these can be seasonal allergies or year round problems; sometimes this is referred to as “hay fever”)
Animals: wasp & bee stings, cats, dogs
Drugs: penicillin, sulfa drugs, IV contrast dye
Other Substances: latex, perfume, cosmetics, various chemicals
Remember that the list of examples above is a short sample of the many substances that can cause an allergy.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is characterized by an allergic reaction to pollen grains. Grass, trees, and weeds are common causes of hay fever. A person may experience the signs and symptoms of hay fever seasonally, in which a person suffers when plants pollinate. People may also experience hay fever symptoms year round.
A person having an allergic reaction may display one or multiple signs and/or symptoms. The most common reactions include an itchy/runny nose, red/watery eyes, hives, a scratchy/tight/sore throat, and headaches. Some people may also experience wheezing or other symptoms.
There are other causes of these symptoms that are not allergens. Asthma causes similar problems, and some people have reactions from exercise. But if you have an adverse reaction every time you consume a certain food or are exposed to a certain substance, you may have an allergy.
What are signs and symptoms of a severe allergic reaction? What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is a system-wide allergic reaction that is often very severe. It can involve many of the symptoms listed above, but is especially notable because it often involves bronchoconstriction (shrinking of the airway) and vasodilation (expansion of the blood vessels). This results in a person’s throat closing up and a person’s blood pressure dropping dangerously low.
[warning]If anaphylaxis not treated, it will result in death. Any allergic reaction that may be anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention, as it is a life-threatening emergency.[/warning]
What is the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?
Not all reactions to food are allergies. Essentially, the difference is that an allergic reaction involves the immune system (specifically IgE antibodies), and a food intolerance does not. A food intolerance produces adverse reactions but it is not the same as an allergy. Both can warrant concern and treatment. An allergy, however, is more likely to be immediately life-threatening.
Many people who have a reaction to peanuts or shellfish have a food allergy, while many of those who have a reaction to milk (lactose) or wheat (gluten) have a food intolerance. But keep in mind, all of these foods can be responsible for either an allergy or intolerance. It depends on the person and their reaction.
Can I develop an allergy as an adult?
Yes. While many allergies begin in children, more and more adults are developing allergies later in life.
How can I determine whether or not I have an allergy?
Do not “test yourself” to see if you have an allergy to a particular substance. If you do have an allergy, the reaction may get worse over time and may require emergency medical intervention.
A doctor can help determine whether or not you have an allergy. Allergists/ immunologists are trained to help determine what substance(s) a person may be allergic to.
What can I do about my allergy symptoms?
There are many over-the-counter medications that can help with your allergy symptoms, including decongestants (antihistamines) and nasal sprays. You can also talk to a doctor about getting a prescription medication to help control your allergies.
For those with known severe allergies, you should consider carrying an epinephrine auto-injector (an Epi-Pen). Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is another drug that is used to help counter allergic reactions. Talk to your family doctor or pharmacist about these medications (Benadryl is available over the counter; epinephrine auto-injectors are available with a prescription).
Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) will help open a person’s airway and restore blood pressure. While it will also have other side effects (such as a faster heart rate), it should be given as soon as possible to keep a person’s airway open and blood pressure up. A prescription is required for an Epi-Pen in the United States.
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is a strong antihistamine. Excess histamine release is part of an allergic reaction, so Benadryl will help to counter this problem.
Keep in mind that for any severe allergic reaction, you should immediately seek medical attention (even if you have already taken epinephrine and Benadryl). If you are not sure whether or not it is severe, be cautious and seek medical attention.
How do allergies affect a person’s everyday life?
Effects vary widely, depending on how sensitive a person is to an allergen and how severe those reactions may be. But a general rule is that people with allergies do what they can to avoid their allergy triggers (allergens).
In the case of food allergies, some people must eat a food in order to develop an allergic reaction. In other cases, simply being in the same room as a food might create a reaction. This can result in people not being able to, for example, go to certain restaurants. An example of this is the Five Guys restaurants, which have open boxes of peanuts throughout the store.
Different amounts of an allergen may be required to trigger a reaction, so someone who wears just a little bit of perfume to work may not trigger a reaction in her co-worker, but if she wears too much, there could be a problem.
Those who know they (or their children) may have a life-threatening reaction to an allergen often carry an epinephrine auto-injector and/or Benadryl. If you are a friend of someone who carries an auto-injector (a.k.a. an Epi-Pen), consider asking them to show you how to use it in case it becomes necessary for you to use it on them. It’s not hard to learn and could help you save a life.
Take allergies seriously, as they have the potential to be life-threatening. They are a nuisance, but they are a problem that many of us have to live with.