Allergies and Allergens

Prevention is the Best Cure

By Abraham Mathew Saji

An allergic reaction can manifest itself in various ways, like Itching, swelling or watering of the eyes, nose and skin, leading to increased severity if left untreated. Some reactions may warrant treatment or even hospitalization depending on its severity. Sometimes the symptoms, called anaphylactic reactions, can also be life threatening.

Our immune system, consisting of antibodies, white blood corpuscles, masts cells, complement proteins; defends the body against foreign substances, also referred to as antigens. However, in certain susceptible people, this immune system tends to overreact when exposed to certain antigens, known as allergens. An allergen is responsible for the inception of an allergic reaction. These allergens or so called “harmful foreign substances” could be from the environment, food or medications and could be harmless in others. Some people could be allergic to just one allergen or trigger factor, while some could be allergic to many allergens or trigger factors.

As the old adage goes, “Prevention is the best cure,” avoiding the trigger factor responsible for the allergy is the best option to keep it at bay.

Types of Allergies

Most allergies are hereditary and are common within the family members. In such cases, the risk of developing an allergy towards a particular allergen is higher when there is a history of any close family member possessing it. Although the reasons why allergies develop aren’t known, it is the allergens that are responsible for causing an allergic reaction.

Most common allergens that people develop allergies to are one or more of the following:

  • certain plants
  • pollen or molds pet dander
  • bee stings or bites from other insects
  • certain medications, such as penicillin or aspirin
  • certain foods, including nuts or shellfish

The most common types of allergies

Dust Allergy

The dust in our home may contain pet hair and dander, mold or pollen, spores, and dust mites or cockroach body parts and droppings, all of which are common allergens. These allergens can cause an allergic reaction when we inhale or come into contact with them. Dust allergies can cause breathing difficulties and may trigger asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath. Dust also just makes some people itchy. People with dust allergies often suffer the most inside their own homes or in other people’s homes, then the outdoors. Oddly enough, their symptoms often worsen during or immediately after vacuuming, sweeping and dusting as the process of cleaning can stir up dust particles, making them easier to inhale and contact.

Molds live everywhere, on logs and fallen leaves, and in moist places like bathrooms and kitchens. Some people are allergic to these molds. Mold allergies can be tough to outrun. The fungus can grow in the basement, in the washroom, in the cabinet under the sink where a leak went undetected, in the pile of dead leaves in the backyard or the field of uncut grass down the road. There are so many species of molds, most of which are not visible to the naked eye. As tiny mold spores become airborne, they can cause allergic reactions.

Mold Allergy

Insect Sting Allergy

Stings from five insects, namely honeybees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets and fire ants, are known to cause allergic reactions to the venom injected into the skin. While most people are not allergic to insect venom, the pain from a sting may cause them to mistake a normal reaction for an allergic one. The severity of an insect sting reaction varies from person to person. A normal reaction will result in pain, swelling and redness confined to the sting site. A large local reaction will result in swelling that extends beyond the sting site.

If your nose runs, your eyes water or you start sneezing and wheezing after petting or playing with a dog or cat; you likely have a pet allergy. A pet allergy can contribute to constant allergy symptoms, as exposure can occur at work, school, day-care or in other indoor environments, even if a pet is not present. Pets can produce multiple allergens that are found in the fur, dander, skin, saliva and urine.

Pet Allergy

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is an allergic reaction to airborne allergens, like seasonal grass or ragweed pollen or year-round allergens like dust and animal dander. Allergic rhinitis is sometimes called “hay fever,” especially when caused by seasonal allergens. Hay fever shares many of the same symptoms as a common cold but is not caused by a virus or bacteria. Instead, it is caused by your immune system reacting to allergens you breath into your body. Despite the name, hay fever is not necessarily a reaction to hay, and it does not cause a fever. 

There are two types of allergic rhinitis namely seasonal (symptoms can occur in spring, summer and early fall and are usually caused by sensitivity to airborne mold spores or pollens from trees, grasses or weeds) and perennial (symptoms occur year-round and are generally caused by sensitivity to dust mites, pet hair or dander, cockroaches or mold.

While any food can cause an allergic or adverse reaction, eight types of food account for over 90 percent of all reactions. These eight types of food are eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish shellfish, wheat and soy. One may wonder, “If we opt out of these food types, then what do we eat?”. But as elaborated earlier, not all allergens cause the same level of reactions in every individual. While food allergies may develop at any age, most appear in early childhood.

Food Allergy

Drug Allergy

People with drug allergies may experience symptoms regardless of whether their medicine comes in liquid, pill or injectable form. Reactions can occur in any part of the body. The time varies from person to person. Some people may react right away, while others might take the drug several times before they have an allergic reaction. Most of the time symptoms appear between 1-2 hours after taking the drug. Symptoms of a drug allergy can be like other allergic reactions and can include hives or skin rash, itching, wheezing, light headedness or dizziness, vomiting and even anaphylaxis. A combination of these symptoms makes it much more likely that it is an allergy than just nausea and vomiting on their own, which are common side effects of medications.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction

The symptoms of an allergic reaction can vary from mild to severe. On exposure to a particular allergen for the first time, the symptoms may be mild. These symptoms can proceed to get more severe on repeated or more frequent contact with the particular allergen or its related group of allergens.

Symptoms of a mild allergic reaction can include one or more of the following:
  • hives (itchy red spots on the skin)
  • itching
  • nasal congestion (known as rhinitis)
  • rashes
  • itchy throat
  • watery or itchy eyes
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction can include one or more of the following:
  • abdominal cramping or pain
  • pain or tightness in the chest
  • diarrhea
  • difficulty swallowing
  • dizziness (vertigo)
  • fear or anxiety
  • flushing of the face
  • nausea or vomiting
  • heart palpitations
  • swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
  • weakness
  • wheezing
  • difficulty breathing
  • unconsciousness

More severe and complicated allergic reactions can develop within seconds on exposure to the allergen. This type of reaction is known as anaphylaxis and can result in life-threatening symptoms, including swelling of the airway, inability to breathe, and a sudden and severe drop in blood pressure. It unattended to or left untreated, this condition can be fatal.

Allergies of Babies

When babies have allergic reactions, it’s the result of an inappropriate response by their immune system. The immune system is programmed to fight off illness, but sometimes it reacts to a harmless substance, like pollen, as if it were an invading parasite, virus, or bacteria. To fight back, the immune system overproduces protective proteins called antibodies. This overproduction causes swelling and inflammation of tissues — the nasal passages, for example. Babies’ allergic reaction can recur whenever they are exposed to whatever triggered it. Some of the most common allergies affecting babies are:

  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Red / itchy eyes
  • Rashes
  • Dermatitis
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Prevention is the key

Knowing that one is allergic to a particular substance or condition, preventing the allergic reaction will improve the outlook. It can be prevented by avoiding the allergens that affect to be able to attack. The approach to managing an allergy will also depend on its severity. In case of a mild allergic reaction, seeking an immediate therapy can have a high chance of recovery. In case of a severe allergic reaction, the approach will focus on receiving effective and efficient emergency care. A more severe allergic reaction that can cause anaphylaxis can be fatal, and in such cases, emergency ambulatory medical attention may be necessary. Once the allergen responsible for the cause of allergy is identified, it is most prudent to avoid exposure to it and its related group.

“An ounce of Prevention is worth a pound of Cure”

Credits: InfoMed ( Malaysia )


8 thoughts on “Allergies and Allergens

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