what's inside: diseases and conditions channel
Know how to prevent, treat and control the symptoms of various diseases and medical conditions. We explain what's
happening in your body when disease strikes, and what you can do to feel better faster.
Inside this Article
1. Introduction: What Causes Allergic Reactions?
2. What Makes Some People Susceptible to Allergies?
3. Allergic Rhinitis: Introduction, Grass Pollen
4. Allergic Rhinitis: Weed Pollen
5. Allergic Rhinitis: Mold Spores and Dust Mites
6. Allergic Rhinitis: Cockroaches and Pet Allergies
7. Allergic Asthma
8. Skin Allergies
9. Food Allergies
10. Drug and Workplace Allergies
11. Allergic Reactions to Insect Bites and Stings
Whether it's runny, itchy or stuffed, your nose knows what's bothering it. But do you know what's wrong
with your nasal passages? Understanding allergies isn't difficult, but it is the first step toward building a
healthy alliance with your nose, eyes, lungs, and sinuses.
In this article, we will look at some of the causes of allergies as well as
some of the symptoms of allergies. We will then go into greater detail,
Did You Know?
exploring topics like why some people are more susceptible to allergies Allergic diseases are the sixth
and the different types of common allergies. By the time we're done, leading cause of chronic
you're sure to understand how allergies work! disease in the United States.
What Causes Allergies?
Allergies are the result of the immune system's mistaken response to a harmless substance. Normally, the
immune system stands guard and defends your body against intruders that can be dangerous to your
health, such as viruses and bacteria. When it does its job well, your immune system keeps you from
getting sick every time an ill-intentioned germ finds its way into your
In some people, however, the immune system has difficulty
distinguishing between the good guys (or, at least, the neutral guys) and AutoImmune Disorders
the bad guys. Like a nervous rookie, it sees danger everywhere and Common allergies are an
overreacts. A hyperreactive immune system pulls out all the stops for immune system overreaction,
substances that won't do you any actual harm, such as dust, pollen, and not an autoimmune disorder.
animal dander. These innocuous substances are called allergens. The two can be easily confused.
When people who have allergies encounter an allergen, their immune An autoimmune disorder is a
system produces antibodies, called IgE antibodies, that are specific to condition in which the immune
that substance -- ragweed, for instance, or cat dander. system goes bonkers by
attacking the body's tissues.
Thousands of these antibodies bind to the surface of special cells in Rheumatoid arthritis is an
body tissue called mast cells, which then lie in wait for your next example.
exposure to that specific allergen. While they are waiting, these mast
cells absorb many different chemicals from the blood that will aid in the body's defense; they store these
chemicals in tiny granules. When you're reexposed to the allergen, the allergen binds to the IgE antibodies
on the surface of the mast cells, causing the mast cells to release the chemicals. One of the chemicals,
histamine, is probably familiar to you. It is one of the biggest players in the allergic response system and
causes many of the reactions, such as runny nose, sneezing, and itchy and watery eyes, that we describe
Most anti-allergy medications block the histamine from binding to its receptor and are called
antihistamines. The allergic reaction can have both an early and a late phase. Typically the early phase
may start within a few minutes of exposure, while the late phase may start several hours after the initial
exposure. The early phase is caused by the release of those chemicals stored in the granules in the mast
cells. The late phase reaction is caused by other inflammatory cells
recruited into the area.
Allergic Symptoms Allergies and
The body's first line of defense against invaders includes the nose, You're off the definition mark if
mouth, eyes, lungs, and stomach. When the immune system reacts to you declare, "I am allergic to
an allergen, these body parts become battlegrounds. housework!" Instead you should
say, "I have an aversion to
Signs of the battle can include one or more of the following: runny nose; housework." Aversion means a
sneezing; watery, swollen, or red eyes; nasal congestion; sinus strong dislike. However, the
inflammation and pressure; hives; rashes; itchy eyes; itchy nose; former may be accurate if you
wheezing; shortness of breath; a tight feeling in the chest; difficulty suffer from dust-mite and mold-
breathing; coughing; diarrhea; nausea; headache; fatigue; and a general spore allergies. Cleaning house
feeling of misery. stirs up such allergens,
potentially causing an allergic
It's ironic that the immune system, designed to protect you from illness, reaction that can certainly give
produces symptoms that make you feel sick when it overreacts to you an aversion you didn't have
mundane substances. But that's the nature of the allergic response. The to begin with!
symptoms are the unfortunate result of the immune system's
overperformance. It's a perfect example of the old saying that sometimes the cure is worse than the
In the next section, we will answer a question you may have asked before: What makes certain people
susceptible to allergies while others get away with nary a sneeze?
What Makes Some People Susceptible to
Why some people are allergic to certain things while others are not can be a difficult topic to understand.
For example, a dog can jump into your lap and, just like that, you will start to sneeze and your eyes will
drip. All of this will force you to toss Fido aside in search of a tissue box. Meanwhile, your friend or
neighbor experiences none of the above effects.
Why is this? There are three main reasons: inherited genes, environment and age.
It's in the Genes
Allergies can often be blamed on mom and dad. The tendency to become allergic is inherited, and the
chances that you also will be allergic increase from about 50 percent when one parent is allergic to 75 to
80 percent when both parents have allergies.
Tell your friends you're "atopic," meaning that you have inherited the tendency to have an allergy.
(And hope that none of your friends know Greek, as "atopic" derives from the Greek word for "strange.")
But you needn't feel strange...or alone. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
(ACAAI) estimates that as many as 50 million Americans suffer with asthma, hay fever, or other allergy-
So, the family genes are stacked against you. Does this mean instant sniffles? Not always. Don't forget,
even if you have a 60 percent chance of developing allergies, you also have a 40 percent chance of not
developing them. That's why Fido turns your nose and eyes into streams while your brother is pretty much
dry. In the genetic roll of dice, he came out the winner.
Environment Counts ...
There's more to developing allergies than heredity. What you become allergic to is based on when and
how much you're exposed to a substance and how much of it you're exposed to.
For example, say you have a tendency to be allergic to mold spores. You may have no allergy symptoms
when you're living alone in your spic 'n' span apartment, but when a roommate moves in, bringing along a
jungle of house-plants, an old mattress, and a humidifier (to keep her skin moist) you soon become a
symphony of sneezes and snorts. What happened? You had endured a certain amount of exposure to
mold spores without a problem, but once the scales were tipped by the onslaught of your roommate's
mold-bearing stuff, your immune system kicked into high gear.
... As Does Age
How old you are when you're exposed is critical, and viruses may also play a role. Recent studies show
that heavy exposure early in life -- before age 2 -- may be protective against animal allergies and asthma.
Now that we've discovered the source of allergies and what makes certain people susceptible to them, it's
time to look at specific types of allergies. First up is the most common type of allergy -- allergic rhinitis.
The Difference Between
Chronic and Acute Allergies
Where you live may affect the degree to which you suffer from
allergies. Say you're allergic to the big four: grass, pollen, dust
mites, and mold. If you dwell in the Pacific Northwest, where all
four are abundant nearly year-round, you may suffer a lot of the
time. Your nose will drip, you'll sniffle, and you'll have a sore throat
from postnasal drip, but your symptoms won't be extreme, just
ever-present. Move to a higher and drier region, where the grass
grows wild but mold spores and dust mites are less common, and
your allergies may become seasonally acute (sudden and
severe). You might find yourself sneezing uncontrollably for a
month but then your symptoms will abate. Living with allergies is
often a game of give and take, especially if you suffer from several
Allergic Rhinitis: Introduction, Grass
The air is full of flying things. Luckily they're microscopic or you'd have to wear a suit of armor even in your
own home. Unless you live in a sanitized glass bubble, it's impossible to completely avoid airborne
allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, and pet dander. These identifiable flying objects cause allergic
rhinitis, which simply means an inflammation of the nasal membranes. If you've heard of hay fever (and
that includes everyone who has turned on a television or radio in the spring or summer, since there are so
many commercials for antihistamines), then you know about allergic rhinitis: It's that drippy nose, itchy
eyes and throat, and sneezing that's so familiar during pollen season.
While pollen is one of the most common triggers of allergic rhinitis, it is
not the only one. Mold spores; dust-mite droppings; cockroach body
Did You Know?
parts; and animal dander can also prompt an allergic reaction. You can An estimated 35 million people
be allergic to only one or to several of these airborne particles. in the United States have
seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay
The next few sections will help you understand the pollens, spores and fever).
pets that cause allergic rhinitis.
Pollens: Love is in the air...
Birds do it, bees do it, and so do plants. They all reproduce. Pollen grains, the stuff that makes you
sneeze, are simply the microscopic male reproductive cells released by trees, grasses, and weeds. A
pollen grain, similar to the male sperm, contains half the genetic
material needed for reproduction.
Pollination occurs when pollen grains are released by one plant and Allergies and Climate
carried by the wind to another similar plant in order to fertilize it. (Large Myth: Moving to southwestern
pollen is also carried via birds and insects, but these don't cause you to states will cure pollen allergies.
Fact: Moving to southwestern
Love in the air elicits a romantic response from plant life, but for some (or desert) states may relieve
forms of human life (i.e., allergy sufferers) it guarantees an allergic allergies for a few months.
response. The terrible trio of tree pollens, grass pollens, and weed However, new allergies to local
pollens causes misery for allergy sufferers, especially from spring to fall. plants can develop within a
Unlike the pollens from flowers and shrubs, this trio releases pollens short period of time.
that are light, numerous, and easily transported by the breeze. Additionally, people (both new
residents and others) have
You can get an idea of the kind of pollen that most troubles you simply transplanted their ornamental
by observing when your symptoms start and when they wane. Tree plants and grasses from "back
pollens, for instance, herald the beginning of the allergy season. home," introducing the same old
Although pollen seasons vary by geographic region, those stately, pollens into a new environment.
shade-producing trees we love -- box elder, chestnut, ash, walnut, You can't move away from
cottonwood, oak, elm, maple, willow, cedar, sycamore, and more -- allergies, except maybe to the
typically send out showers of pollen from March through May. (In Texas, moon -- but they have moon
however, cedar pollen season is January!) Thankfully for aching noses dust up there.
and irritated lungs, tree pollination season is short-lived.
Just when you thought it was safe to venture outside, out pop grass pollens. More common than tree
pollens, grass pollens generally reach their peak from mid-May to mid-July, although the timing varies by
geographical region. In California and Florida, for instance, grass pollen season is from February through
October. Grass pollens are larger than tree pollens (often you can see them in the air), and they affect the
nose and eyes most drastically. There's no escape, as the wind transports grass pollens to all ends of the
earth. With 9,000 grass species worldwide, it's hard to name all, but popular pollinators in North America
include barnyard grass, Bermuda grass (in southern areas), bluegrass varieties, corn, fescue, ryegrass
(cultivated lawn grass), cultivated wheat, and wheat grass.
In the next section, we will talk about a different kind of pollen that can affect you just as much as grass
pollen. The offender? Weed pollen.
Colds vs. Allergies:
How to Tell Your Sniffles Apart
Allergic rhinitis symptoms (stuffed-up nose; sneezing; red, itchy
eyes) are often mistaken for a cold. The main differences? With
allergies, these symptoms continue for weeks or sometimes all
year; with a cold, the symptoms persist for about 10 days and
then disappear. Additionally, nasal discharge from an allergy
sufferer is typically thin and clear, while those with a cold often
have thick and yellowish discharge due to infection. But the two
can tango together! When nasal membranes become irritated by
the constant sneezing and sniffling caused by allergies, it's easy
pickin's (no pun intended) for germs and viruses to move in and
cause an infection.
Allergies ... last for weeks
Colds ... last up to 10 days
Allergies ... no fever
Colds ... fever common
Allergies ... no muscle aches
Colds ... frequent muscle or joint aches
Allergies ... not contagious
Colds ... very contagious
Allergic Rhinitis: Weed Pollen
Summer is half over by the time grass pollens are finished doing their job. That's when weed pollens,
which have waited patiently, spring forth. Those pesky plants that, along with cockroaches, will inherit the
earth someday are ready to take over pollen production from midsummer to mid-fall. This section looks at
the ways that weed pollens can cause allergy havoc for millions of
Ragweed Is King Why Is It Called
When it comes to weed allergies, ragweed is the star. Its pollen is one of Contrary to popular perception,
the most potent. Only a few ragweed pollen grains are needed to hay fever isn't an allergic
produce hay fever, which is bad news considering that one ragweed reaction only to hay, nor is it a
plant can produce one billion pollen grains in a season. This demon fever. The term originated in the
plant knows no boundaries and in some places can grow 12 feet or Old World when, during hay
higher. Ragweed pollens love to book one-way tickets out of town: harvest time, folks' noses
Ragweed pollen has been found 400 miles out to sea and two miles up started running and sneezing.
in space. Harvest time or not, seasonal
hay fever is caused by a medley
While there are few places to hide, ragweed isn't fond of areas in upper of tree, grass (including hay),
New England or the southern tip of Florida. The West Coast has and weed pollens. The technical
western ragweed, which is not as bad as giant ragweed but still causes term for hay fever is pollinosis.
allergies. While the Rocky Mountain states don't have ragweed, they do
have other weed pollens.
Other Types of Weeds
Some weeds are prolific pollinators. Take dock weed for example, which comes in several varieties --
bitter, green, white, and yellow; it pollinates from April all the way to December.
Other weeds to watch out for include aster, cattail, clover, dandelion, fireweed, mugwort, nettle, pigweed,
California poppy, rabbit brush, sagebrush, and Russian thistle. Along with the nuisance weeds, some crop
weeds, such as alfalfa, hemp, hops, sweet clover, and sunflower, produce pollens, too.
Monitoring Weed Pollen
Allergists and meteorologists help you stay on top of pollen allergies by constantly assessing and
reporting on the amount of pollen in the atmosphere. During pollen season, these experts take daily pollen
counts, which measure the number of pollen grains in one cubic meter of air during a 24-hour period.
Pollen is collected with a plastic rod or similar object that is covered in a greasy, sticky substance. The rod
rotates or spins continuously, collecting pollen specimens that are then examined under a microscope and
counted. Local wind currents, rainfall, and humidity sometimes limit the accuracy of the readings.
Many newspapers list local pollen counts on the weather page and some newscasts announce pollen
counts during the weather report. Always remember that the pollen count you hear on the news is 24 to 48
hours old and counts can change quickly depending on weather conditions. Pollen counts are worse on
clear, windy days and generally improve on rainy days or after the first light frost. Make note of the
weather conditions the day prior (when the pollen count was taken) before drawing any conclusions about
present-day pollen conditions.
Where to Find Pollen Counts
If you don't see the pollen count in the paper or on television, you can get pollen counts by going to the
following site(s) on the Internet:
National Allergy Bureau of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology at
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: www.aafa.org
Now that we've covered grass and weed pollens, it's time to take a look at two more causes of allergic
rhinitis. The next section will cover the evils of mold spores and house dust mites.
Can Flowers Cause Allergies?
It's true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But
don't stick your snout too far into the flower to capture such
sweetness. Flowers make wonderful gifts, but to a person
susceptible to hay fever, you may as well bring a weed into the
While flower pollens don't disperse in the wind as easily as other
pollens, they can cause problems in an enclosed environment. If
you must give flowers, choose those with a few prominent
stamens, such as lilies. (Stamens are the flower's male
reproductive organs that produce pollen.)
Then, before offering the flower, perform surgery by carefully
removing the stamens. If such "castration" is too much for you, try
giving a card instead. Orchids are another good choice. They
don't readily release pollens and are generally well tolerated. They
are the symbol for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of
Allergic Rhinitis: Mold Spores and Dust
As if pollens aren't enough, there are fungal spores, commonly known as mold spores, floating around in
the air you breathe. Spores differ from pollen in how they reproduce, but they are spread the same way.
As the season becomes warmer (summer to early fall), mold spores hit the air currents. Some mold
spores prefer to ride the dry winds, while others need high humidity and condensation to get off the
ground. Thankfully, only a few dozen out of the hundreds of molds trigger allergic reactions. Those that
do, however, do it well, infiltrating the nose and lungs and triggering hay
fever and asthma flare-ups.
(Don't) Shake It Up Shedding Skin
An average human sheds up to
Mold spores love moisture and often grow on the ground or on decaying 1.5 grams of skin particles each
vegetation, so victims usually inhale them while "stirring things up" day. In just one gram of dust,
during activities such as mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and cleaning there can be upward of 1,000
the basement. When you stir things up, molds become airborne. But mites.
molds (and pollens) can also enter your life through an open window, carried in with the breeze, which you
Indoors, mold will set up housekeeping if you have the ideal environment for them to thrive and reproduce.
Prime mold real estate includes dirty laundry hampers, old newspaper piles, carpeting, fireplace logs,
houseplant soil, foam rubber mattresses and pillows, bathtubs, bathrooms, and dark, damp basements.
Water leaks from pipes or windows speed the development of mold, especially if the water gets on
carpeting. Humidifiers and vaporizers are also a major source of indoor mold. Need we mention that mold
spores love traveling, too? Air-conditioning vents (home and car, alike) have the best seating.
If you are highly allergic to mold spores but not to pollens, moving to a drier, high-altitude area may help
ease your allergies.
House Dust Mites: Tiny Terrors
House dust mites are members of the arachnid family, eight-legged creatures that include spiders. These
microscopic insects are harmless, but their droppings contain proteins to which many people are highly
allergic. In fact, about 80 percent of children with asthma are sensitive to dust mites, as is about 10
percent of the population as a whole.
Dust mites love to feast on protein products such as human and animal
skin flakes (dead flakes, fortunately). Luckily, the human eye can't see A Cause of Asthma
this mite-ty picnic, unless it's held underneath a microscope. Huge Dust-mite droppings are
gatherings (a typical used mattress may have anywhere from 100,000 to considered by many allergists to
10 million mites inside) will dine all day and night in bedding, carpeting, be the single most important
and furniture, especially when such hangouts are toasty warm and allergen associated with
frequented by humans. Dust mites don't need drinks to wash down their asthma, as they can cause
feast. They absorb moisture from the humid air through special glands. asthma in young children as
well as trigger asthma attacks.
These ugly creatures don't fly, but their fecal pellets can become airborne, and that's the problem for the
allergy prone. When you ruffle your blankets, fluff your pillow, sit on the couch, or walk across your carpet,
millions of microscopic fecal pellets are propelled into the air and onto the mucous membranes of the
nose, eyes, and airway linings. Voila: an allergic reaction! And it doesn't help to hold your breath. Mite
poop remains airborne for 20 to 30 minutes before settling.
Dust mites are everywhere in the United States except the desert and locations higher than 5,500 feet.
They thrive at room temperature with humidity higher than 50 percent. In North America, the Gulf Coast
region, especially sunny, humid Florida, and the mild and damp Pacific Northwest are favorite spots.
Around the world, dust mites flourish in northern Europe, Venezuela, Brazil, parts of Australia, New
Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
In the next section, we will conclude our look at allergic rhinitis with an overview of how cockroaches and
pets can trigger allergic symptoms.
Terms on a Doctor's Report
If you are an allergy sufferer, any or many of these conditions may
appear on your doctor's chart.
Conjunctivitis: Itchy, watery, red, or swollen eyes caused by
airborne allergens settling on the eye.
Contact dermatitis: A type of rash caused by skin contact with
an irritant or substance you may be allergic to; poison ivy, for
Nonallergic rhinitis: Nasal symptoms caused by nonallergic
inflammation or anatomic problems with the nasal passages.
Symptoms may be similar to those caused by allergies.
Perennial allergic rhinitis: Year-round rhinitis caused by molds,
animal dander, dust mites, etc. Symptoms are similar to hay fever
but can be ongoing and persistent.
Rhinitis: The term for the symptoms produced by an irritated
nose and nasal passages.
Rhinorrhea: Runny nose.
Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever): This type of allergic
rhinitis usually occurs from early spring to fall when tree, grass,
and weed pollens are at their prime.
Sinusitis: An inflammation or infection of any of the sinus
cavities. Acute infections have a host of symptoms, while chronic
infections have very few.
Allergic Rhinitis: Cockroaches and Pet
Allergies can also be caused the little critters scurrying around your house. Whether a cat or cockroach,
they could be contributing to your allergic reactions.
Dust mites and their droppings may be horrible to think about, but at least you can't see them.
Cockroaches, on the other hand, are visible. Although they scuttle away when the kitchen light comes on,
they leave behind their droppings in the form of little pellets. The feces contain a digestive enzyme thought
to be an allergen. If that's not enough, dead roach body parts, themselves known allergens, adhere to
dust particles. These become airborne and cause an allergic reaction when they enter the nose, eyes, and
lungs. Extermination can actually increase the problem because there will be more body parts in the dust.
For roach control, it's best to use traps, such as the Roach Motel.
Like dust mites, cockroaches adore a warm, humid environment. Not all
cockroaches live indoors, but those who enter homes to forage for food Roach Longevity
(and reproduce) live in every room. But it's the kitchen that continues to Cockroaches will inherit the
be their favorite snacking ground for obvious reasons. earth, no doubt about that.
These omnivorous insects have
Pet allergies been on Earth for 350 million
years, dining on filth and food,
While cats, dogs, and other pets are much more cute and cuddly than spreading allergens, and fleeing
dust mites and cockroaches, they also produce allergens, most notably from the light.
those found in their dander (flaky, dead skin cells) and saliva. Cats, with their predilection for primping,
spread the allergen from their saliva to their fur.
Once dried, it flakes off and becomes airborne. Cat allergen particles are small and can stay airborne for
several hours. Not only do they love air travel, but these allergens will happily travel overland.
Their sticky nature helps them cling to clothing, transporting them to homes and offices where a cat has
never set down a paw. The urine of female cats and rodents is also allergenic. Allergies to dogs are less
common and typically less intense than those to cats, but dog saliva and dander contain allergens, too.
Although dogs don't groom as readily as cats, many are happy to lick their human companions, often
provoking a reaction.
Birds, gerbils, mice, guinea pigs, rats, rabbits, and horses can all cause allergic reactions in sensitive
individuals. However, amphibians and reptiles aren't allergenic.
And fish seem to be relatively free of allergens, as they don't shed in our living room. However, be wary of
mold spores growing around the fish tank.
Many airborne substances can trigger allergic rhinitis, including mold spores, dust-mite droppings,
cockroach leavings, and animal dander. Now that you have a solid understanding of this allergy type, it's
time to look at a few other types of allergies. In the next section we will review allergic asthma.
Pet Allergies: Fact or Fiction?
Myth: Some dog breeds, such as Chihuahuas, are better for
people with asthma and allergies.
Fact: Dander is what causes allergies in some individuals, not pet
hair. Since all dogs have dander, there are no allergy-free breeds.
There is, however, a lot of breed-to-breed difference in dog
allergen, so you may tolerate one breed better than another. In
cats, the most common allergen accounts for 90 percent of the
allergies, so if you're allergic to one cat, you're most likely allergic
Myth: Continuous exposure to pets will decrease allergies.
Fact: Continuous exposure to pets will not decrease allergies.
The best way to relieve symptoms is to remove the pet from the
home. If removing the pet is not an option, pet owners should
keep the pet out of the bedroom, bathe the pet weekly to reduce
the amount of allergens in the air, have a non-allergic family
member brush the pet outside, and clean the animal's cage or
litter box frequently. Use a HEPA filter in the bedroom and remove
Asthma is a respiratory disease that affects the lungs and is intricately linked with allergies. A tendency
towards asthma often is inherited. Although we know a lot about asthma and more than 20 million
Americans have this disease, we do not know what causes it. This section will explore what we know
about allergic asthma.
What Exacerbates Allergic Asthma?
No Cure for Asthma
Triggers of allergic asthma include allergens such as mold, pollen, dust- There is no cure for asthma.
mite and cockroach leavings, and animal dander. Other triggers include However, with the proper
an assortment of irritants such as cigarette smoke and stimuli such as diagnosis and treatment,
cold weather, infections, and exercise. asthmatics can lead normal,
Being a worrywart or the fearful type may also trigger asthma attacks or make an attack more severe.
Emotional stress and bodily reactions are tied together in a bond that is, fortunately, breakable through
such means as relaxation and exercise, stress management, and proper nutrition. Other asthma triggers
capable of causing (or worsening) asthma symptoms include viral infections, drug allergies, and even
positive emotions, such as excitement and laughter.
When asthmatics encounter a trigger, their airways become inflamed
and swollen and increase the production of mucus, all of which reduce Is Cigarette Smoke
the supply of air. Wheezing, that whistling sound from the chest that can an Allergen?
be heard on exhalation, is the most recognizable asthma symptom, a Smoke hasn't been proved to be
result of a constricted airway. However, some asthmatics never wheeze. an allergen, but it is an irritant,
Other symptoms may include coughing, shortness of breath, tightening especially to those suffering
of the chest, and difficulty breathing. from asthma or allergic rhinitis.
Symptoms of Allergic Asthma Cigarette smoke, both from
smoking and passive smoking,
Asthma symptoms range from mild to severe and may occur has also been known to
occasionally or on a daily basis. Asthma typically starts during increase the risk of asthma and
childhood, but adults can develop it. Exposure to irritants, such as allergic rhinitis. Children are
cigarette smoke, at an early age increases the chances of developing especially vulnerable.
An Asthma Attack
Imagine wearing a Victorian corset around your chest that someone keeps pulling tighter and tighter. Such
a feeling is a reality to modern-day asthmatics...and they don't even wear corsets. When an asthmatic
encounters a trigger, the body reacts by flooding the airways with mucus and causing the inner lining of
the bronchi to swell and the airway muscles to contract.
Asthmatics, including children, should identify and avoid triggers of an attack, know signs of an impending
attack, and be prepared with prescribed medications. Asthmatics should also alert friends, family, and
associates to the classic symptoms of an attack: difficulty breathing, difficulty speaking and walking,
hyperventilating, a fast pulse, and a blue or gray skin tone, particularly around the lips (from lack of
oxygen). Most importantly, asthmatics and others should know that an asthma attack is a medical
emergency and should be treated accordingly.
Does your skin itch whenever you apply a certain lotion or cream? We'll find out the cause in the next
section, which reviews skin allergies.
Fact or Fiction: Can Children Outgrow Asthma?
Myth: Children outgrow asthma and/or allergies.
Fact: Asthma is a chronic state of hyper-responsiveness. Some
children have asthmatic symptoms that clear up during
adolescence while others worsen, but the tendency to have overly
sensitive airways usually remains. Unfortunately, there is no way
to predict a child's future with asthma. As for allergies, it is
erroneous to believe children outgrow allergies as they do a pair
of shoes. Allergies may improve over time, especially during
However, don't wait for a spontaneous improvement. Proper
treatment will make the child more comfortable and thwart any
The skin is your largest organ and an important defender against invaders. It is constantly bombarded and
usually fends off trouble quite successfully. Sometimes, however, an allergen gets the best of your skin,
causing a reaction. This section will explore skin allergies and the reactions they cause.
Skin Allergy Symptoms
Symptoms can include a rash or hives, or swelling, itching, and cracking of the skin. Our hands, arms,
neck, and face come in contact with so many substances every day that they are the most common sites
for an allergic skin reaction, but no part of your anatomy is immune. A skin reaction that is the result of
contact with an allergen is called allergic contact dermatitis. (By contrast, a skin reaction caused by
contact with a substance that is harsh or caustic is called irritant contact dermatitis and does not involve
allergies or the immune system.)
What Causes Contact Dermatitis?
Potential allergens exist everywhere. Many can be rounded up in the Atopic dermatitis (itchy rash) is
bathroom cabinet: nickel/chrome in jewelry and snaps; latex found in the most common skin condition
condoms, rubber gloves, bandages, and rubber bands; chemicals in in children younger than 11
cosmetics, toiletries, and perfumes; hair products, including hair dye; years of age. The percentage of
and laundry detergent and fabric softeners. The great outdoors hosts children diagnosed with it has
such potential villains as poison oak, poison sumac, and poison ivy. increased from 3 percent in the
1960s to 10 percent in the
Identifying the exact cause of allergic contact dermatitis can be difficult 1990s.
because your skin comes in contact with hundreds of suspects a day
and first reactions may occur hours or days after the initial contact. In The National Institute of Health
some cases, a reaction doesn't occur until weeks or months of currently estimate that 20
prolonged use. Luckily, contact dermatitis isn't named contact for percent of infants and children
nothing. Many allergens leave a trail to follow. The location of the rash, exhibit symptoms of atopic
hives, or itch will help you to put the suspects in a lineup. dermatitis.
For example, let's say your ears itch. What comes in contact with them?
Earplugs, headphones, earrings, perfumes, hair products, and lotions Did You Know?
might be major suspects. Hives and swelling of the
deeper layers of the skin affect
How about a rash that develops under your arms? The possible causes: approximately 15 percent of the
lotion, deodorant/antiperspirant, elastic straps in clothes, a bra's U.S. population every year.
underwire, new fabrics, etc. Like so much in the allergy world, a little observation can go a long way
toward discovering what is irritating you.
Pinpointing and avoiding contact with the allergen is the primary treatment for allergic contact dermatitis.
However, if the rash spreads or if you develop hives or experience uncontrollable itching and the skin
becomes red, tender, and damaged, see your physician.
Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a kind of skin allergy, but it is of Can Perfume Cause
mysterious origin. Allergies?
Have you read the ingredient list
Symptoms include red, itchy, dry, scaly patches most frequently on the on the back of your favorite
face, arms, legs, and scalp. Infants and children are particularly fragrance bottle? Probably not,
susceptible to eczema, but the vast majority of children who have because such a list doesn't
eczema outgrow it. It's clear that there's a connection between eczema exist. The Food and Drug
and allergies, since 70 percent of those who have this skin condition Administration (FDA) doesn't
have a family history of allergies or asthma. And one-third of those with require fragrance manufacturers
eczema eventually will develop allergic rhinitis or asthma. to list ingredients or secret
formulas on the label. You may
There is no cure for eczema. The best preventive measures are to smell sweet, but your skin may
moistureize your skin so it doesn't dry out and to pinpoint and avoid also suffer from potentially
substances that seem to irritate your skin or trigger the rash. irritating chemicals. If you
Additionally, topical medications containing steroids can help control develop a rash of unknown
itching, as can oral antihistamines. cause, one of the first
substances you should suspect
Your skin is always being exposed to potential allergens. Allergic -- and stop using -- is perfume.
contact dermatitis and eczema are two different types of skin allergies.
Identifying and treating them is a matter of being informed and knowledgeable.
Had a bad reaction to a wedge of cheese? A glass of milk? In the next section, we will look at food
allergies and how to deal with them.
Itch. Scratch. Itch: An Irritating Cycle
Itches happen when skin is irritated. The ordinary reaction to an
itch is to scratch. What follows after can be a mess. The more you
scratch, the more you dfd your skin and the nerves just below the
surface of the skin. The skin and nerves become increasingly
inflamed, which only results in more itching. The best way to stop
an itch is to practice self-control.
There are two types of reactions to food. One is the result of an actual allergy while the other is a result of
an intolerance. Food intolerance is actually the more common of the two, but food allergies are the more
serious. In this section, we will explore the symptoms and causes of food allergies as well as how to tell a
food allergy from a food intolerance.
What Is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy is a hypersensitivity or abnormal response by the immune system to a certain food.
It's a sensitivity that develops the same way as allergies to pollen or mold. First your body already needs
to have encountered the allergen (in this case, a food) in order to have developed antibodies to it. That's
why you can have eaten a peanut once and not have had a reaction to it. It's only the next time you eat a
peanut that your body reacts as the antibodies to peanuts now rally themselves for a fight.
Food Allergy Symptoms
The symptoms of an allergic reaction to food range from tingling lips and tongue to abdominal cramps to
difficulty breathing and, most seriously, shock. The site of the reaction and its severity can vary. When two
or more organ systems are involved or if there is wheezing, the reaction is considered severe. Reactions
may get progressively worse with subsequent exposures. Just because a person has had only mild
reactions to an allergic food does not mean that the next reaction will not be serious and potentially fatal.
Food Allergies in Children
Like other kinds of allergies, the tendency to have food allergies -- but not the specific allergy -- is
inherited. And certain foods, including milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts, are the
most frequent troublemakers. Children often have more food allergies than adults, especially to cow's milk
and peanuts. Many food allergies in infants are outgrown by age four. Reactions to shellfish, fish, and tree
nuts are more common in adults.
Which Foods Are Responsible for Your Allergies?
It can be tricky identifying what food is causing your symptoms. It's usually obvious, but it may not be,
especially if you're reacting to a spice. Less obvious reactions require a bit of detective work.
The answers to the following questions can be revealing:
What was the timing of the reaction?
Does the reaction happen after eating a certain food or meal?
Was the food fully cooked?
What else was eaten (including spices, condiments, beverages...)?
Did anyone else experience symptoms?
Avoiding the food that causes your symptoms is the only "treatment" for food allergies, and that is often
easier said than done. Some foods, such as milk and wheat, are ubiquitous and can be very difficult to
Even peanuts can be hard to avoid. As the saying goes, the world is full of nuts: Peanuts and peanut
traces are found in cakes, cookies, candy bars, breakfast cereals, breads, Asian cooking (peanut oil is
popular), ice creams, desserts, sauces and gravies, and a variety of processed foods. Therefore, people
who have experienced or are at high risk for experiencing life-threatening food allergies are well advised
to carry injectable epinephrine (which must prescribed by a doctor) and possibly antihistamines to reduce
serious symptoms and buy time to seek medical help.
Food intolerance is a chemical reaction that doesn't involve the immune system. Classic examples include
lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, and heartburn. Lactase deficiency ranks as one of the most
common types of food intolerance. If your body doesn't have enough of the enzyme lactase, you can't
properly digest lactose, the sugar found naturally in milk and milk products. Symptoms of lactose
intolerance include bloating, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.
Taste enhancers, fancy food colorings, and preservatives are also on the list of food intolerance causes.
Perhaps the best-known example is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer commonly used in
restaurants and processed foods. When MSG is ingested in large amounts, sensitive individuals may
experience flushing, headaches, and chest pain. Sulfites are another common cause of food intolerance.
Sulfites are substances that occur naturally in some foods (such as wine) and are added in others to
preserve texture and prevent mold. Asthmatics risk an attack if the sulfite-containing food they consume
gives off sulfur dioxide. This gas irritates the lungs, causing spasms and constriction of the airways.
Now that we've covered food and skin allergies, it's time to look at other factors that can contribute to
allergies. In the next section, we will explain how drugs and even your workplace can cause allergic
Exercising With Food Allergies
Heavy breathing comes with vigorous exercise, but having trouble
breathing does not, nor does breaking out in hives, becoming
dizzy, or going into shock. Yet, for some individuals with food
allergies, eating a food and exerting the body afterwards triggers
the immune system. To avoid exercise-induced food allergies, eat
several hours prior to exercising.
Drug and Workplace Allergies
Although people experience all kinds of reactions to medications, these are usually side effects of the drug
(which you'll usually find listed and described in the patient information insert) rather than allergic
An unexpected allergic reaction to a drug is rare, but the symptoms can be severe, ranging from skin
rashes and hives to fever and anaphylaxis, a severe and life-threatening reaction that includes swelling of
the mouth and tongue, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, a drastic drop in blood pressure,
unconsciousness, and even death. This section will help you to better understand the nature of drug
allergies before discussing the impact of environment.
Which Drugs Can Cause Allergies?
Drugs infamous for causing allergic reactions are some of the same drugs made famous for saving
countless lives, most notably penicillin and sulfa drugs. Other drugs known to cause allergic reactions
include barbiturates (rare), anticonvulsants, Novocain and other local anesthetics (very rare), and insulin,
especially insulin derived from animal sources. Aspirin and aspirinlike drugs are also a common cause of
allergic reactions and are known to trigger asthma attacks, especially in children.
Risk for Allergic Reaction
Are you at risk for having an allergic reaction to a drug? The following will help you decide:
Family history. Is anyone in your family allergic to any drugs? If so, you may have inherited the
How long have you taken a drug? You won't experience an allergic reaction the first time you
take a drug; you need to develop antibodies to it, just as you do with other types of allergies. Therefore,
the longer or more frequently you take a drug, the greater the chance of developing an allergy.
How was the drug administered? Topical medications and injected medications are more likely
to cause a reaction than those taken orally.
Your age. Adults are more likely to have an allergic reaction to medications than children.
Your dosage. The higher the dose, the more likely an allergic reaction.
If you are allergic to a drug, make sure to inform your physicians. The primary treatment is avoidance of
the medication. A shot of epinephrine, a form of adrenaline, can be given to halt an anaphylactic reaction.
Since drug reactions are usually unanticipated, make sure you're within the reach of medical help when
you first begin taking a medication. Don't go hiking alone in the mountains or sequester yourself away
from human contact. Reactions typically occur within a few minutes to an hour, but they can occur much
later. In fact, some can react days later or even after the antibiotic was stopped.
Yeast infections and loose stools are not symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Sick of work? Most of us joke that we are. But some people literally become sick at their workplace,
suffering from a condition called "sick building syndrome." This article will look at the allergies you contract
from your work environment.
The Office as Incubator
In an effort to conserve energy, modern office buildings are built as tight as tombs, often with inadequate
fresh air circulation. Allergens and irritants fill the air with no place to go. Carpet-cleaning solvents leave
irritating chemical residues. Fiberglass or other particles in the air bother eyes. Mold spores, freely
circulating in the moist, continually running air-conditioning units, annoy sensitive noses. And, if co-
workers have pets at home, there might even be animal dander floating in the atmosphere.
Enclosed office spaces aren't the only workplace susceptible to environmental problems. Many
professionals and trades people, because of the chemicals they work with, also are prone to
environmental allergies, whether they work indoors or out.
Professions that are susceptible to allergy include:
Industrial workers handling paints, chemicals, solvents, and plastics
Beauticians, who constantly work with hair dyes, hair perms, and nail polish and polish removers
Farm workers dealing with fertilizers and pesticides
Photocopier technicians working in enclosed offices with machines and papers that emit
potentially harmful gases.
Medical professionals, who can become sensitized to latex (in surgical gloves)
Bakers, who can suffer from flour or wheat allergies, dubbed "baker's rhinitis" in honor of the most
Workplace Allergen Symptoms
Symptoms depend on what you're exposed to, how much of it, how often, and for how long. They can
include itching and burning eyes, rashes, sore throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
Factors that contribute to susceptibility include your age, a history of allergies, your general health, and
your overall level of stress.
Environmental allergies are difficult to pinpoint and harder to avoid. You can't just stop going to work.
Are Your Allergies Work-Related?
Some detective work might offer clues about whether or not you're allergic to a work environment.
Ask yourself these questions:
When do the symptoms start and when do they stop?
Do symptoms start in a certain area (the copier room, for example) or when I am performing a
What are the symptoms like on weekends or on vacation? Bring your observations (not
conclusions) to your doctor.
We will conclude our look at how allergies work with an overview of allergic reactions to insect bites and
stings in the next section.
Allergic Reactions to Insect Bites and
If you've ever been the target of a bee or yellow jacket, you know there's often more to their sting than the
initial pain. The body responds with swelling, redness at the site, and itching. Applying ice and a
disinfectant, however, usually helps ease swelling and suffering.
For five percent of the population, though, an encounter with a stinger or a bite can be more than
uncomfortable -- it can be life threatening because they're allergic to the insect's venom. Symptoms of an
allergic reaction range from hives, itching, or swelling throughout the body to tightness and swelling of the
throat, breathing difficulty, a sudden drop in blood pressure, dizziness, unconsciousness, and cardiac
arrest. The reaction generally occurs within minutes of being stung.
If you're allergic (or suspect you're allergic) to stings or bites, be sure to let other people know and be
prepared to self-inject epinephrine. Your doctor can provide you with an emergency injector to keep on
Avoiding Bites and Stings
Avoiding yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, bees, and fire ants is better than treating yourself once you're
stung or bitten. Here are some simple preventative measures:
Don't walk barefoot in the grass, which is a favorite nesting and resting ground for stinging
Stay clear of nests or hives. You're viewed as a big, two-legged threat and will be attacked. Have
a professional pest-removal company remove any nests in the vicinity.
Never place your hands in dark corners, into holes, or underneath objects without looking first.
Cover food when dining outdoors, and do not drink from an open soda can. Stinging insects love
sweet soft drinks as much as you do and sometimes go inside while they're drinking. Always pour your
drink into a clear container.
Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to reduce skin exposure.
Don't dry your laundry outside. Flying, stinging insects might get caught in the laundry and be
If a stinging, flying insect uses you as a landing pad, don't flail and scream. Remain calm and
gently brush off the intruder, then quickly exit the scene.
Lastly, don't look like a flower. Save your bright, floral shirts for the indoors. And, since we're on
the floral theme, avoid smelling like one, too. Perfumes, lotions, and hairspray smell sweet and attract
If you think you're allergic to insect venom stings, consult your doctor. Venom immunotherapy, in which
gradual doses of venom are administered to stimulate the immune system to become resistant to future
allergic reactions, may be an option. The immunotherapy can dramatically decrease your chance of
anaphylaxis from 50 percent to less than 0.57 percent.
Over the past few sections of this article, we've talked all about allergies and their sources, causes and
solutions. The most important part of fighting allergies is compiling a good working knowledge of what
you're battling against. Once you understand that an allergy is nothing but a reaction to an otherwise
harmless substance, you can learn how to avoid your allergen or what to do if you should come in contact
Of all the allergic reactions, anaphylactic shock is the most
serious. While rare, it tends to strike those with severe allergies to
insect stings, some foods, and certain drugs. Symptoms may be
mild at first (itching, flushing of the skin, cramps) but can very
quickly (within one or two minutes) become severe (swelling of the
mouth and tongue, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulty, collapse
and unconsciousness, and death). If the victim has self-injectable
adrenaline (typically in the form of an epinephrine pen known as
an Epi-pen), help them administer it and seek medical attention at
Otherwise, follow these steps:
Keep the victim stabilized, calm, and warm. Loosen
Call 911 or ask someone to do so.
Check airways. Perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if
the victim isn't breathing.
Perform CPR if there is no pulse.
If possible, note what caused the shock and report it to
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