Did you know that allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.?1
With millions of people experiencing allergies every year, it’s not surprising that there are many questions surrounding this health condition. From what allergies are, to treatment and diagnosis, there’s certainly a lot of information to keep up with.
1. What are allergies?
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says, “An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system sees a substance as harmful and overreacts to it.”2 Allergens are the triggers (ex: pollen, pet dander, peanuts) that cause allergic reactions. These allergens fall into one of 7 groups2:
- Food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes 9 major food allergens3: milk, tree nuts, eggs, peanuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, sesame seeds, and soybeans. Together, there are over 160 foods that are known to cause food allergies.
- Pollen. This yellowy substance is known as one of the most common triggers for people who suffer from seasonal allergies. Other names for a pollen allergy include hay fever and seasonal allergic rhinitis4.
- Pets. Allergies related to pets include being allergic to their urine, dander, or saliva of cats and dogs.
- Insects. Think stings and bites from bees, wasps, mosquitos, and ticks.
- Drugs (medication).
2. What are the symptoms of allergies?
The most common allergy symptoms include itchy/watery eyes, a runny nose, sneezing, or a rash. Severe allergic reactions can cause anaphylaxis, which is when you have trouble breathing and/or swelling in your mouth or throat2.
Foods, insect stings, medications and latex are the most common allergens related to anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention, including an epinephrine shot and a trip to the emergency room. If not treated quickly, anaphylaxis can lead to serious complications and even death8.
3. How are allergies diagnosed?
With all of the different allergens that have similar symptoms, you may wonder how allergies are detected. Detection comes down to allergy testing which occurs via two methods:
- Pick or scratch test
- Blood allergy test
For a pick/scratch test, small amounts of the allergen are scratched onto your skin and then the spot is observed for a reaction, like itching or redness. Because you are waiting for a reaction, this test is typically performed in an allergist’s office so they can be prepared if you do experience a bad reaction. A blood allergy test requires a simple blood draw and then the sample is processed in a lab to look at the antibodies in your blood sample and can be evaluated for specific allergenss5.
4. How can allergies be treated?
There are three commonly used allergy treatment strategies2:
- Avoidance of allergens. Depending on what you’re allergic to, avoidance may be easier said than done. For example, food allergies may require you to research a restaurant ahead of time or see if food can be cooked separately to not interact with something you’re allergic to. For seasonal allergy sufferers, keeping an eye on pollen counts and limiting time outside when levels are high can help.
- There will be times when avoidance might not be possible. Using seasonal allergies as an example again, there will be times you have to go outside when pollen levels are high. Over-the-counter medication or a prescription for other allergy medication from your healthcare provider can provide relief. The FDA has some helpful information about looking for over-the-counter allergy medication.
- Out of the three allergy treatment strategies, immunotherapy is considered the most effective. Immunotherapy is a long-term process where small amounts of allergens are injected in your body and over time that amount is increased until your immune system can better handle the allergen. For allergies, a type of immunotherapy is allergy shots. How frequently you get allergy shots will depend on factors including what your allergy is and how severe it is6.
Working closely with your allergist or primary healthcare provider is important for determining which of these treatments, or combination of treatments works best for you.
5. Are there ways to prevent allergies?
Taking steps like avoiding allergens, taking allergy medicine as prescribed and being prepared with a medical alert bracelet or epinephrine pen for extreme allergies are good places to start7. Other ideas include purchasing items for your home, like an air purifier or bedding that is safe for people with allergies. If you sense you have allergies but not sure what your trigger is, keep track of interactions in a diary. With that information, your healthcare provider can be better informed about what you are experiencing. For blood allergy tests, Scarlet® can meet you where you are to collect a blood sample and then deliver the sample to a BioReference lab for testing. Scarlet also performs specimen collection for a number of other allergy-related companies such as Curex, who manages the telemedicine and immunotherapy aspect of allergy testing.