Why do we suffer from allergies?

March 30, 2015

After a lingering winter, spring is a welcome change. However, as warmer weather returns and the horizon is dotted with the fresh green color of budding leaves on trees, spring’s not-so-welcome companion, allergies, moves back in and takes a gripping hold on suffers of all ages. Allergies are physiological reactions caused when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance (allergen) that has been inhaled, touched or eaten by a person. Normally, our immune system is able to defend itself against harmful substances, such as viruses or bacteria, but, sometimes, the defenses aggressively attack usually harmless substances such as dust, mold, or pollen. 

The immune system makes large amounts of the antibodies called immunoglobin E (IgE), to attack and destroy the supposed enemy. Each IgE antibody targets a particular allergen—the substance that triggers the allergic reaction. In this disease-fighting process, inflammatory chemicals, such as histamines, cytokines and leukotrienes are released or produced, and some unpleasant, and, in extreme cases, life-threatening, symptoms may be experienced by an allergy-prone person.

What are allergic reactions?

An allergic reaction may occur in the skin, eyes, lining of the stomach, nose, sinuses, throat, and lungs—places where immune system cells are located to fight off invaders that are inhaled, swallowed or come in contact with the skin. Reactions may result in the following:

  • Seasonal or allergic rhinitis (nasal stuffiness, sneezing, nasal itching, nasal discharge, itching in ears or roof of mouth)
  • Allergic conjunctivitis (red, itchy, watery eyes)
  • Atopic dermatitis or eczema (red, itchy, dry skin)
  • Urticaria (hives or itchy welts)
  • Contact dermatitis (itchy rash)
  • Asthma (airway problems, such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing)

What causes allergic reactions?

Although hundreds of ordinary substances could trigger allergic reactions, the most common triggers, called allergens, include the following:

  • Tree, grass and weed pollens
  • Natural rubber latex (protein)
  • Molds
  • Dust mites
  • Animal protein (dander, urine, oil from skin)
  • Foods
  • Medicines
  • Feathers
  • Insect stings

Who is affected by allergies?

Allergies can affect anyone. Generally, they are more common in children. However, a first-time occurrence can happen at any age, or recur after many years of remission.

There's a tendency for allergies to occur in families, although the exact genetic factors that cause it aren't yet understood. Often, the symptoms of allergies develop gradually over time.

Allergy sufferers may become used to chronic symptoms, such as sneezing, nasal congestion, or wheezing, that they do not consider their symptoms to be unusual. Yet, with the help of an allergist, these symptoms can usually be prevented or controlled and quality of life greatly improved.

How are allergies diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, your health care provider may use the following to test you or your child for allergies:

  • Skin test. The skin test is a method of measuring the level of IgE antibodies to specific allergens. Using diluted solutions of specific allergens, an allergist pricks the surface of the skin with these solutions on plastic prongs. A reaction to the skin test doesn't always mean that you or your child are allergic to the allergen that caused the reaction. Skin tests provide faster results, typically taking 15 minutes, and are more specific than blood tests.
  • Blood test. The blood test is used to measure the child's level of IgE antibodies to specific allergens. One common blood test is called RAST (radioallergosorbent test).
  • Challenge test. This is a test supervised by an allergist because a very small amount of allergen is taken by mouth or inhaled.

What is the treatment for allergies?

When treating your child, your health care provider will consider your child's age, overall health and other factors when advising the best treatment. Medications can help lessen allergy symptoms. In some cases, allergy shots are needed. This involves injecting small amounts of the allergic substances. This stimulates the immune system to fight the allergy. Allergy shots are usually needed weekly for a time, then every few weeks and are given by an allergist.

If you would like information on allergy testing, please contact Panhandle Ear, Nose and Throat at 806-355-5625.