What is allergy?

Allergy is an over-reaction of the body’s immune system to a foreign substance (pollen, mold, animal dander, food). The reaction usually causes symptoms in a specific part of the body (nose, eyes, airway, and skin). Perhaps the most familiar reactions are in the nose (hay fever) and airway (asthma), but it may affect other parts of the body. Rarely allergies can be life threatening and cause death.

Allergies affect at least 20 percent of people (40-50 million people). These are a major cause of chronic and recurrent illness, and are often complicated by infections (sinuses, eyes, lungs, intestine). Allergies can cause absence from work and school, reduce a person’s efficiency, and generally make a person feel bad. People usually develop allergies because of heredity, repeated exposure to the foreign substance, and sometimes because of weakened body defenses (infection, illness, pregnancy, hormonal changes).

How can you tell if you have an allergy?

Typical symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever) are stuffy, itching nose, sneezing spells, and watery nasal discharge. Usually symptoms are due to exposure to certain pollens (trees, grass, weeds), house dust, mold, mildew or animal dander. Symptoms are recurrent or persistent with each exposure.

The common cold is different because it is a viral infection that makes you feel sick. The cold causes the throat to be sore, but does not cause any itching. It only occurs occasionally (not more than a few times a year) and typically lasts a few days. The cold is not caused by exposure to environmental particles (e.g., pollens).

A sinus infection is different because it is an infection that also makes you feel sick. A sinus infection does not cause itching, but has thick yellow or green post-nasal drainage, sore throat and causes pain in the cheeks. It may be acute and last several days. It may be chronic and last for months. A sinus infection may be relieved by medicines like antibiotics.

Typical symptoms of asthma include airway resistance, shortness of breath, wheezing with expiration and non-productive cough. Asthma may be aggravated or caused by exercise, reflux, noxious or irritating aromas or chemicals (perfumes), as well as allergies.

What are common allergens?

Pollens occur with budding plants during the outdoor growing season. This season lasts from early spring to late fall. Trees are earliest, with their season extending from March to late spring. Grasses pollinate from mid-spring to early summer. Weeds mostly pollinate during the summer. Ragweed pollinates from July through fall until it freezes.

Pollens are carried by wind, and can be carried hundreds of miles. This happens especially during dry weather. Rain washes the air and rids it of particles such as pollens. Mold spores grow in soil, damp areas and after it rains. It is similar to indoor mildew, which also grows in damp, moist places. Mold spores are very light and may remain suspended in air. They are nearer to the ground when the temperature is cool, but during the heat of mid-day air expands and the spores are carried up to higher elevations. It is during the cool evening that mold allergic people are bothered more.

House dust mites are microscopic insects that grow inside our homes and other buildings. They feed on dander, multiply when the air is damp and are plentiful in carpets, drapes and furniture. Too high humidity encourages more mites. Although mites are present throughout the year, they are spread through our homes during the winter by heating ducts and during the summer by air conditioners.

Cockroaches live in our homes, share our food, and are very evasive by hiding in crevices, cracks and hard to find spaces. Their feces and body parts may be allergens.

Animal danders (cat, dog, guinea pig, rabbit, etc) may linger in homes for years after the animal is gone. Dander becomes part of house dust. Cats contribute not only dander, but also saliva that gets on their fur by bathing themselves.

Other allergens may come from foods that are eaten, and chemicals found in all rooms of the house (perfumes, detergents, etc).

Candida is yeast that grows in our bodies, especially in the intestine. It reproduces more when the diet is rich in sugars and simple carbohydrates. Candida can not only act as an allergen, but cause infections, and toxic symptoms.

How are allergies diagnosed?

See a physician who is trained and experienced in diagnosing and treating allergies. The history (symptoms) is most important, followed by an examination. Allergy tests may be needed to identify which allergens a person is sensitive to, and as well as to develop a plan for treatment.

There are several kinds of allergy tests. These tests help to identify allergens as well as indicate the degree of sensitivity.

In-Vitro Tests measure the amount of IgE in a patient’s blood. IgE is the substance that the body makes for each allergen a person is allergic to. It is very accurate for pollens, danders and most house dust. It is the preferred test for young children. In-Vitro Tests are also used when skin problems interfere with skin testing, and when certain drugs that interfere with skin testing cannot be stopped.

Skin Testing is done by several methods. All tests involve putting a solution of an allergen in the skin, and measuring the degree of swelling that occurs.

Intradermal Dilutional Testing not only accurately identifies which allergens a patient is sensitive to, but it also effectively measures the strength of sensitivity. This helps determine an effective dose of allergen to begin immunotherapy (allergy shots for treatment). Other tests are also used for testing inhalants, foods and chemicals.

How are allergies treated?

Avoidance: If allergens can be eliminated or avoided, this is done first. Eliminating damp areas that grow mildew or mold, getting rid of carpets and drapes that contain dust mites, putting covers on pillows and mattresses, changing furnace filters, putting animals out of living areas, staying indoors and using air conditioners during pollen season are ways of avoidance.

Medicines: There are many allergy medicines. Antihistamines are available with or without prescriptions. Steroid and antihistamine nose sprays and eye drops may help. There are many asthma medicines. Often a series of medicines may be tried until an effective treatment is found.

Immunotherapy: (Allergy shots) this is a specific means of treatment that is individualized for each patient, and it is based on the blood and/or skin tests. The allergens for which the patient was sensitive to on the test(s) are combined into a serum (solution) which is injected under the skin each week. The two goals are to relive allergy symptoms and to train the immune system to protect the body against the allergens. After a few years, if the body’s self-defense does develop, the shots may be discontinued.

Contact Information

For further information please contact UHC Allergy & Immunology by calling (681)342-3570 or by faxing (681) 342-3575.