When most people are exposed to the various things that float through the air it causes them no distress. These are things like pollens, mold spores, pet dander or insect (cockroach or dust mite) particles. But in some people inhaling these specific substances can lead to immediate and distressing symptoms. We don’t know why some people develop these allergies but there is definitely a genetic factor. Allergies tend to run very strong through families.
We also don’t know why people develop reactions to only certain things. Why to cat but not to dog? There must be some additional signal that determines when and why a person becomes allergic to a specific substance.
But we do know what happens when an allergic person is exposed to one of their triggers. The particle enters through the nose, mouth or eyes where the immune system recognizes it as an allergen (any particle that causes an allergic reaction). A reaction is initiated that causes certain cells in the body to release histamine and a host of other chemicals. These chemicals cause itching, swelling, mucous drainage and inflammation. This reaction is often limited to the local area (such as the nose or eyes) but it severe cases it can spread to other areas like the lungs or skin.
Sometimes it’s easy to know what triggers an allergic reaction. If you pet a cat and instantly have strong symptoms then it is pretty obvious! But sometimes allergy symptoms happen just by walking outside or in the middle of the night. Your Allergist can perform special tests to identify your allergic triggers.
Most common is a skin test where very small doses of allergens are applied to the skin and a small reaction occurs within minutes. This test is quick and easy with results obtained in about 20 minutes. Some patients love to tell horror stories about allergy testing with “hundreds of needle pokes!” but if it’s done by a trained and certified specialist it should be relatively painless. Most Allergists only test for about 50-60 things using a light scratch on the skin with a plastic toothpick-like device. Even babies can be tested (although usually for a smaller panel of possible triggers)!
There are usually three main ways to combat allergies:
- Avoidance – Identifying and staying away from the things that triggers your allergies is the best therapy! You can’t have allergy symptoms if you aren’t exposed to your allergens!! This works best for indoor allergens like dogs, cats, cockroaches and dust mites. Not everything in the air is easily avoided though.
- Medications – Medications simply work to block your symptoms. Antihistamines have been around for a long time and try to block the chemical histamine that causes most of the symptoms. Nasal steroid sprays are highly effective and work to reduce the inflammation inside your nose and stop your symptoms. These medications and others work best if they are taken BEFORE the allergy symptoms become severe. For people with many different allergies they work best if taken every day.
- Allergy shots – Also called allergy immunotherapy, this is the most effective therapy as it is the only one that actually changes your allergies. Small amounts of the things you are allergic to are injected into your body in gradually increasing doses to build up your tolerance to these things. While not a complete cure it is typically highly effective in reducing your symptoms and need for medications. Allergy drops are a variation of this therapy where drops are placed under the tongue instead of being injected into the arm.