A reaction that your immune system has to something you eat, inhale or touch is known as an allergy. According to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), over 50 million Americans suffer from allergies. Allergies can be triggered by food, the air, medication, clothing, insect bites. They are more common in individuals with a family history of allergies or asthma.
Understanding Common Allergies
Food Allergies and Food Intolerance
The most common food allergies are the following:
Symptoms can include tingling in the mouth or throat, swelling (lips, tongue, face, or throat), hives, dizziness, weak pulse and anaphylaxis (a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction).
Food intolerance is often confused with a food allergy. A food allergy affects the immune system and organs. An intolerance affects the digestive system. The most common food intolerances are lactose intolerance (having a sensitivity to a sugar found in dairy foods) and gluten intolerance (sensitivity to a protein that is found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains). Gluten intolerance is not the same thing as having a wheat allergy or celiac disease, which it is often confused with.
The best treatment for a food allergy or intolerance is to eliminate the food from your diet, which isn’t always easy to do. Always read labels and check ingredients to make sure that they do not contain ingredients that you are allergic to. Some foods may have an allergy warning label stating that the product is “made with,” “may or might contain” or is “made on shared equipment or in a shared facility.”
Allergic rhinitis, also known as hayfever, can be seasonal or year-round. The most common causes of allergic rhinitis include the following:
- Dust mites
- Pet dander
- Mold or mold spores
- Cigarette smoke
Some of the symptoms associated with allergic rhinitis mimic the common cold. This includes runny nose or stuffy nose, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, red and swollen eyes or itching of the nose or throat.
The best treatment for allergic rhinitis is allergy medication and avoiding triggers. Allergic rhinitis medications come in the form of steroids, antihistamines, nasal sprays or nose drops.
The most common drug allergies stem from antibiotics such as penicillin and related antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, NSAIDs and anticonvulsants. Penicillin is the most common of these drug allergies. Symptoms can be mild to severe and include hives, rash, facial swelling, wheezing and anaphylaxis.
Alternative drugs or desensitization are common treatments for drug allergies, specifically antibiotics. Desensitization is turned to when alternative drugs are not an option. It involves taking large amounts of the drug to develop tolerance at a minimal dose.
Skin allergies include inflammation of the skin, a rash, hives or eczema after coming in contact with an allergen. Skin allergies can also come from plants, such as poison ivy or poison oak, cockroaches and dust mites.
Insect allergies are usually a result of stings from fire ants, wasps, hornets or bees. The symptoms include rash, swelling, hives, pain, itchiness or anaphylaxis. Treatment for insect allergies includes avoiding insects, allergy shots or epinephrine auto-injector.
Testing for Allergies
When people experience certain allergy symptoms triggered by an allergen, they often ask, “What am I allergic to and how do I find out what I am allergic to?”. These are concerns that you should raise with your primary care physician, who may then refer you to an allergist. An allergist is responsible for diagnosing allergies and helping you determine how to identify and deal with allergies.
The process of diagnosing allergies is not cut and dry. An allergist will perform a physical exam, inquire about your symptoms and review your medical history before administering tests for allergic rhinitis or giving a food allergy diagnosis. There are no tests that can diagnose a gluten intolerance or give a gluten allergy diagnosis. More often than not, an individual will have a sensitivity to several allergens rather than a clinical allergy.
A skin prick test involves pricking your back or inside of your arms with a small amount of the suspected allergen. Redness and swelling are signs of an allergic reaction.
An intradermal test uses a needle to inject the allergen under the skin.
A patch test places patches with allergens on the skin on the back. The patch is removed after 48 hrs, with a final reading ready after 72-96 hrs.
Blood is drawn from the arm with a small needle and sent to the lab. Samples of suspected allergens are placed in the blood sample to look for IgE antibodies produced by the immune system in the blood. This indicates the immune system has possibly been exposed to a substance that could be causing an allergy.
This test eliminates all suspected foods for a few weeks and then reintroduces one at a time to look for the food responsible for triggering the allergic reaction. You would need to keep a food journal keeping track of your symptoms. You will continue to do the elimination diet until the doctor gives the okay to stop. Once food allergies are suspected during the elimination diet, a prick test or blood test will be performed to confirm the Gallery.
Oral Challenge Test
This is one of the most accurate tests for a food allergy diagnosis. It takes 4-6 hours to complete, and the test is administered in your doctor’s office. Doses of the food are given to you over the course of the test. After each dose, you are examined to look for any signs of a reaction. The doses increase until a reaction is noticed.
Some people may ask, “How to test for allergies at home?” The FDA has approved home-test kits for allergies. However, these tests can be misleading or misinterpreted, and they may not test for the right antibodies. It’s always best to consult a medical professional.
Helpful Tips Dealing With Allergies
To help manage allergies, you should follow these tips:
- Avoid known triggers.
- Take over-the-counter allergy medication.
- Keep your house clean by vacuuming and dusting frequently for indoor allergies.
- For outdoor allergies, keep windows and doors closed when pollen levels are high. Avoid going outdoors or wear a mask when you do.
- An allergy diary is useful to track what triggers your allergic reactions and what makes them worse.
- If you have experienced severe allergic reactions to allergens or if you have an insect or food allergy, carry a medical bracelet and/or an epinephrine device.