What is allergy?

An allergy is an exaggerated reaction by the body’s immune system to contact with substances that it mistakenly assumes will cause it harm. Also called hypersensitivity, allergies are abnormal reactions to things that are typically harmless to most people.

Although we take such conditions for granted, allergies affect some 50 million North Americans and cost the United States more than $10 billion annually. Allergic rhinitis, which concerns the nasal passages, has an impact on the lives of about 35 million Americans, 6 million of whom are children.

What is the immune system?

To better understand how allergy affects people, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the immune system.

The immune system acts as the body’s defense mechanism against infections or substances that can cause it harm. It identifies and reacts to these harmful foreign things by releasing antigens. Antigens are the substances that produce antibodies. Allergens are certain antigens that cause an allergic reaction and the production of IgE, a pathological molecule that serves as the “gatekeeper” for the immune system.

During an allergic reaction, the immune system produces IgE to act on that allergen in order to protect the body. Those antibodies then cause certain cells in the body to release chemicals into the bloodstream. Among these chemicals is histamine.

Histamine has an effect on the eyes, nose, throat, lungs, skin or gastrointestinal tract and this then causes the symptoms of the allergic reaction. Exposure to that same allergen in the future will trigger this antibody response again.

Allergic reactions can vary in severity, from simple runny nose and watery eyes to difficulty in breathing and even loss of consciousness. Allergies can also have multiple symptoms.

Most often, allergies can be passed down through the genes. However, it does not always mean that because a parent or sibling has allergies, a particular person can get them. An individual doesn’t inherit a particular allergy, just the likelihood of having them.

What are some of the common allergies?

The more common allergens include:

  • Food. Food allergies are most common in infants. However, the symptoms of the allergy can go away as the person ages, although this is not always the case. Symptoms of food allergies can range from rashes, swollen lips and stuffy nose to diarrhea, among others. The foods that people are commonly allergic to include milk, eggs and other dairy products, cereals, soy, peanuts, tree nuts and seafood.
  • Airborne particles. These are the most common allergens and they include tiny invisible things such as dust mites, mold spores, animal detritus such as fur, dried skin and dried saliva, as well as pollen.
  • Insect bites and stings. Venom in insect bites and stings, including that from jellyfish, can cause severe reaction in some people. In some cases, it can even lead to death.
  • Medications. Commonly used to treat infections, antibiotics are the most common type of medicines that could cause an adverse allergic reaction in a person. Over-the-counter medications also can cause allergic reactions.
  • Chemicals. Certain household chemicals, including those used in pesticides, cosmetics, detergents and dyes, among others, can cause allergic reaction in some people.
  • Beverages that contain alcohol. Alcoholic drinks are known to cause certain allergic reaction, including difficulty in breathing, among others.

Allergies can affect an individual’s way of life. Among the means to overcome them are:

  • Simply to stay away or avoid allergens. This is especially effective with food allergies.
  • Take medications such as antihistamine pills.
  • Get an epinephrine shot. Available only by prescription, this drug is a fast-acting medicine that can help offset an anaphylactic reaction.

In cases where the allergen could be airborne, it is best that:

  • Pets are kept outdoors or at least out of certain rooms. Give the animals regular baths if necessary.
  • Dust mites and other allergens accumulate in carpets or rugs; remove them from the room.
  • Avoid using heavy drapes where dust can accumulate.
  • Clean the house often.
  • Wash or replace pillows regularly and use hypoallergenic mattresses if you’re allergic to dust mites.
  • Keep windows closed when pollen season is at its peak; change your clothing after being outdoors.
  • Avoid damp areas, such as basements, and keep bathrooms and other mold-prone areas clean and dry.

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