Kathryn Jean Lucas, MD
|What is an allergy?|
|By: K. Jean Lucas, M.D.|
Allergies occur when the body develops a sensitivity
to one or more substances (allergens) in the environment.
When allergens enter the body either by breathing them,
eating them, or having skin contact with them, they cause
the release of histamine. Histamine produces many
of the symptoms you experience with an allergic
reaction. Histamine released into the skin may
cause a rash or hives. When the allergens
affect the respiratory system, they may cause allergic
rhinitis or asthma. Allergic rhinitis refers to the
symptoms affecting the nasal passages and include: runny
nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, tearing, swollen
eyelids, fatigue, facial pain, and itching of the nose
and throat. Allergic rhinitis occurring seasonally such
as in the fall and spring, is referred to as
hayfever. Many times asthma is set off by an
allergic reaction. An asthmatic attack involves the
airways to the lungs causing spasm in the muscle of the
airways and leading to wheezing and shortness of breath.
Common allergens are pollen, feathers, mold, dust,
grasses, ragweed, and animal dander. These
allergens usually affect the respiratory system.
Medications, foods, and cosmetics may also cause an
allergic reaction causing rashes, hives, or
wheezing. An intolerance to a medication, however,
is not an allergy. Nausea or diarrhea following the
ingestion of a food or medication is not an allergy but
an intolerance and is caused by different mechanisms than
the release of histamine. This is why your doctor
will ask you what type of reaction you have had with a
food or medication.
Allergies affect over 40 million people in the U.S.
alone. They cause many annoying symptoms and may lead to
serious illnesses and hospitalization. Anyone can get an
allergy at some point in life.> Many
allergies begin in childhood. For example, eczema and
skin rashes in children are often caused by allergies.
The tendency to have allergies is inherited. If a
person is allergic to one type of pollen or food, related
substances may also cause problems. The form of the
allergy may be different with different allergens in the
same person; for example, one may have hives or asthma
depending on what he is exposed to.
If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above or you
seem to have a cold which never goes away or
recurs frequently, you should see your doctor and relay
your concerns. The physician will ask you about
your history of the disorder and your family history as
well as do a complete physical exam. RAST tests may
be done to determine your sensitivity to certain common
allergens. These tests are blood tests. Other types of
allergy testing include skin tests in which multiple
allergens are applied to your skin, and the skin is
observed for reactions.
If you know what you are allergic to, you should try
to avoid it if at all possible. This is easier in
the case of a food or drug allergy. You should
always alert your physician to a drug allergy any time
you are receiving a prescription. Airborne
allergens such as pollen, mold, or dust are hard to get
rid of, but they can be reduced by house cleaning, air
conditioning, and a good electronic filter. Animal dander,
fur, or feather sensitivity will be helped by not
allowing the animal to sleep with you at night, washing
the bedding, etc. that the animal uses, or in some cases,
finding the animal a new home may be necessary.
Medications such as antihistamines are used to block
histamine release and help with many of the symptoms
caused by allergies.
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Copyright © 1999-2013 K. Jean Lucas, MD, All Rights Reserved
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