Allergies - types, symptoms and causes
Do you get a lot of swelling after a bee sting, start experiencing giant hives when you take certain medicines or get congested around the same time every year when the seasons change? If you said yes to any of those, you may be among the 50 million Americans who experience some form of allergies each year. It’s one of the most common (and most overlooked) diseases.1
An allergy is your body’s way of reacting to a substance it’s not familiar with or something your body doesn’t like. (Even though you might like the taste of peanut butter, your immune system might not.) And that’s just your body’s way of protecting you from something it doesn’t really like. If your immune system senses a threat (real or not), it tries to fight it off. There are lots of allergens out there, but not everyone reacts to them the same way. You might get a reaction from eating peanut butter, while your neighbor could eat it all day long. Allergies can show up in all sorts of ways. The most common signs are things like, runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing or swelling. And while most allergies are simply a short-term inconvenience, some can interfere with daily activities and even be life-threatening.
Your body could be allergic to just about anything. But, most allergies are short-lived and can easily be avoided if you know what triggers a reaction.2
- Food: Common foods that may cause a reaction are milk, eggs, peanuts, fish, soy and wheat. A food allergy is different from a sensitivity or intolerance – those don’t involve an immune system response.3
- Insect: Bees and flies and hornet stings may cause a reaction for some people. Even mosquito bites could get red, swell up and itch a lot. That’s a common allergic reaction to stings and bites from bugs and insects (think mosquitos, bedbugs and flees). Plus, pests, like cockroaches and dust mites, can even cause asthma.4
- Latex: Latex is a type of rubber found in things like balloons, rubber bands, condoms and rubber gloves. Some people can react to latex by breathing in fibers through the air or by directly coming into contact with it.5
- Medicine: Allergic reactions to medicine happen in just a small amount of people. The most common signs of a medicine allergy are skin rash or hives.6
- Mold: Some seasonal allergies can be caused by mold or other fungi. These allergens can be found outside or inside (think bathroom, kitchen or basement). If mold and mildew spores get released into the air, you could have a reaction when you breathe them in.7
- Pet: Have you ever walked into a friend’s house and known they have a cat without asking? People with a pet allergy might react to dander, urine and saliva that get stuck on furniture, clothes or even our furry friend’s coat. Common symptoms are coughing, congestion, puffy eyes and trouble breathing.8
- Pollen: Also called “hay fever,” pollen is one of the most common triggers of seasonal allergies. Every year, plants make pollen that travel in the wind. Those grains of pollen can cause runny nose, sneezing, itchy mouth and swollen eyes.9
If you notice your body feels or looks funny after coming into contact with some of the things listed above, be sure to make a note of it. After all, the best allergy prevention is knowing what to stay away from.
There are many different reactions your body could have from an allergen. The most serious (and sometimes life-threatening) reaction is anaphylaxis. It causes your immune system to release a bunch of chemicals that makes you go into shock. If someone you know goes into anaphylaxis shock, they’ll need an injection of epinephrine and to be taken to the emergency room right away.10 Anaphylaxis is rare, but can be fatal if not treated properly. Most allergic reactions aren’t quite as severe. Here’s a look at the most common signs and symptoms of allergies:11
Shortness of breath
Nausea and vomiting
Before you brush off any of these allergies as the common cold, think about what you did and ate the day you started noticing symptoms. Maybe you have an allergy you didn’t know about. Keeping a health journal can help you spot patterns and possible triggers.
Many people end up discovering allergies on their own by coming into contact with something they didn’t know they were allergic to. But, if you’re unsure whether a substance is an allergen, allergy testing is a way to help pinpoint the culprit. A simple blood or skin test can determine what’s causing that itchy throat or patch of hives. You can test for allergies to things like, pollen, molds, animal dander, foods, bug bites and some medicines. Food allergy testing can be especially helpful since most meals include a variety of different foods, making it hard to know what exactly causes a reaction. Visiting an allergist can help you pick the right test and answer any questions you have.12
Many people have mild allergies that can be managed by avoiding their allergens, while other people have to manage severe allergies year-round. The best way to manage your allergies depends on what they are and how much they interfere with your daily life.
- Reducing exposure: Reducing your exposure to triggers or avoiding them all together is one of the best ways to ward of wheezing, itching and puffiness.
- Natural and home remedies: Keeping your home environment clean and free from dust, fur and pollen can keep you feeling healthy. Consider trying an air purifier, essential oils or herbal supplements.
- Allergy medicines: Medicines like antihistamines, decongestants and corticosteroids are among the most common. It might be a good idea to keep a few over-the-counter allergy medicines on-hand in case you have a reaction while you’re out and about.
- Wear a medical bracelet: If you know you have a serious allergy, wearing a medical bracelet that lets people know about it can come in handy if you ever have a severe reaction out in public.13
There aren’t many risk factors that affect your chances of having allergies. You could be at a higher risk for allergies as a kid, if you have a family history of allergies or have asthma.14 It’s also possible to develop allergies as you get older, especially if your environment changes quite a bit.15
Who should I see if I'm concerned about allergies?
If you’re interested in allergy tests, have concerns about your allergies, or feel like you’re always getting sick, consider visiting an allergist. They specialize in asthma and allergic diseases. Sometimes, people get used to their allergy symptoms, assuming that’s just the way they feel. In fact, you may not even know you have an allergy until you get properly tested. Bring a list of your symptoms, possible triggers and questions for your allergist. Together, you’ll make a plan to help manage, prevent or treat your allergies.16