Allergies, whether minor or severe, can be a massive inconvenience at the very least and a danger to your health and life at worst. An allergy can determine the food you eat, the activities you enjoy, and even the types of treatment you can receive. Suffice to say, finding out you have an allergy can change your life. But what are allergies and how do you know if you have any? Most importantly, if you do have an allergy, is there a treatment option or ways to mitigate the risks?
What is an Allergy?
Most of us have a basic idea of what an allergy is — a physical reaction to something that would normally be quite harmless. Allergic reactions often range from mild to severe, depending on your own allergy and other factors like the amount of the allergen you encounter. Different allergens can also cause different symptoms. Common allergy symptoms include:
- Itchy, runny, or stuffy nose
- Itchy, watery, or red eyes
- Cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness of chest, or difficulty breathing
Hives or an itchy, red rash
- Nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Anaphylactic shock (in severe cases)
An allergic reaction is essentially your immune system misidentifying a particle as harmful to the body and overreacting. If you’re prone to allergies, when your body comes into contact with the allergen, it creates antibodies to remove the allergen from your body. This process creates histamines, which causes the allergic reaction. This is why many over-the-counter anti-allergy medications are called antihistamines.
Discovery & Diagnosis
Most people discover that they have an allergy when they have an allergic reaction to something. Of course, this can be really scary if it’s a severe reaction, which will usually call for immediate diagnosis. So, why isn’t the presence of an allergic reaction enough evidence to diagnose an allergy? Because there may be a number of things you could be allergic to, even if it seems fairly straightforward. For example, are you just allergic to shrimp or all shellfish? It’s also possible to develop allergies over your life, so while many allergies are discovered when you’re young, you may find a new one later in life.
You’ll likely undergo one of a number of tests to diagnose a specific allergy you have.
So, what’s the process for discovering and diagnosing an allergy? An initial trip to the doctor’s office may include things like an analysis of your medical and familial history, since there’s evidence that family history of allergies is a factor in developing them yourself. From there, you’ll likely undergo one of a number of tests to diagnose a specific allergy you have. A skin prick is a very common test that can diagnose many common allergies, where a small amount of the allergen is applied to the skin and the skin is lightly scratched or pricked. Results should start to show within 15 minutes. Similar tests are intradermal, where the potential allergen is applied to the skin but there isn’t a prick. Instead, a patch test is used where the possible allergen is applied to the skin and covered with a patch (usually for contact dermatitis). Blood tests can also be effective to diagnose an allergy, along with a physician-supervised elimination diet for food allergies.
Living with Allergies
Once you’re diagnosed with an allergy, it’s important to make changes in your life to mitigate the risks, as well as find ways to avoid inconveniences for milder allergies. A key factor in this is developing an avoidance strategy. Simply avoiding the allergen is a natural step you must take, so if you’re allergic to nuts, you don’t buy nuts. But it goes beyond that, because you may not always be able to just avoid it. You also have to watch for dishes that may include nuts or nut oils. Or, if you’re allergic to bee stings or something like grass, you’ll have to work on figuring out ways to avoid things you can’t necessarily control.
Depending on the severity of your reactions, this could extend to life-saving measures like an EpiPen for emergency use.
In fact, an essential part of living with an allergy is planning for if you do have a reaction, especially because you can’t always avoid your allergen. Depending on the severity of your reactions, this could extend to life-saving measures like an EpiPen for emergency use. Others may only need a medication to counteract the histamine release. Again, depending on the severity, this could be an over-the-counter option, a prescription antihistamine, or another type of prescription allergy medication.
Allergy Treatment Options?
If you have an allergy, are you stuck with it forever or are there ways you can treat or even eliminate an allergy? For some allergies, yes, there are ways that you can effectively train your body to react less, or not react at all, to your allergen. This method is called immunotherapy, and it’s a treatment that introduces a small amount of your allergen to your body, so your body gradually builds up a tolerance for the allergen. Overtime, this weakens the reaction so you experience weaker, or zero, symptoms of your allergy.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that introduces a small amount of your allergen to your body, so your body gradually builds up a tolerance for the allergen.
There are two types of immunotherapy available: an allergy shot and tablets that go under the tongue called sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). Both methods work by introducing the allergen, though SLIT only improves your resistance to one type of allergen and doesn’t prevent you from developing new allergies. The allergy shot, alternatively, can change your immune system and possibly prevent you from developing new allergies while also weakening symptoms of allergic reactions. Currently, these are the only possible long-term treatments available, though other methods are being tested for effectiveness and safety for food allergies.
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Allergies can range from an annoyance to a life-threatening danger, and no matter which you have, there’s a good chance you want it under control. Depending on the severity, control can mean avoidance and diligence or outright treatment at the suggestion of your doctor. So long as you’re developing some strategy to protect yourself from allergic reactions, you should be able to enjoy life without too much of a hinderance on its quality.