Allergy is a very common disorder, afflicting an estimated 20-30% of the general population in the United States.
What to do if you have allergies
See your Health Care Provider – Make a list of questions you have. Take the list with you to your appointment and ask your doctor the questions. Your doctor can tell you what medicines are available to help your allergy symptoms. Ask your doctor about allergy shots.
You can help yourself – You may be able to avoid some of the things that cause your allergy symptoms. You may be able to plan ahead and take your prescribed medications before your allergies get too bad.
How your Health Care Provider knows if you have an allergy
Medical history and your symptoms – Be sure to communicate:
- When your symptoms started
- When your symptoms happen
- How often your symptoms happen
- Where your symptoms happen – inside, at home, work, outdoors, etc.
- What medicines you take, even over-the-counter medicines
Family History – you can inherit the tendency to have allergies just as you can inherit brown eyes. If one of your parents has allergies, you have a 30% chance of developing allergies. If both of your parents have allergies, you have a 60% chance of developing allergies.
Physical Examination – Your doctor will look for signs of allergies when he examines you. The itching, runny nose, sneezing and red eyes are not the only signs of allergies. Stomach upset, sinus problems, fatigue, headaches, and ear problems can also be signs of allergy disease.
Testing – A skin test involves injecting a tiny amount of potential allergen just underneath the surface of your skin. If you are allergic to the allergen, a small bump will appear in about 10 minutes. You may experience itching at the site. The reactions should resolve within a few hours but sometimes may last a bit longer. A RAST test is a blood test that may also be used for determining specific allergens.
Why you have allergies
Your allergy symptoms happen because your immune system mistakes something harmless (such as grass pollen, cat dander, mold, or house dust) for something that is harmful. Your immune system helps protect you from infections by making specific antibodies to fight harmful substances such as viruses, bacteria or parasites. Your allergy symptoms happen because your immune system mistakes something harmless (such as grass pollen, cat dander, mold, or house dust) for something that is harmful. Your immune system helps protect you from infections by making specific antibodies to fight harmful substances such as viruses, bacteria or parasites.
Virus + Immune System = Virus Antibody
Virus Antibody = Protection
When you have allergies your immune system also makes allergy antibodies called IgE and IgG for things such as pollen and dust mites.
Pollen + Immune System = Pollen Antibody
Pollen + Antibody = Allergic Reaction
Allergic Reaction = Allergy Symptom
The allergy antibodies made by your immune system cause cells, called mast cells, to explode and release several chemicals including histamine. These chemical cause irritation, inflammation and your allergy symptoms.
There are three ways to control your allergies: medication, shots and environmental controls.
- Medications – your doctor may prescribe allergy medications that may help prevent or treat your allergy symptoms. These medications include:
- Antihistamines: treat sneezing, itching, running nose and itchy watery eyes. Some may cause drowsiness.
- Decongestants: promote easier breathing; reduce nasal swelling. Some may cause restlessness, insomnia, and elevations in blood pressure.
- Steroid Nasal Sprays: treat nasal itching and congestion. Some can cause local irritation and nose bleeds.
- Decongestant Nasal Sprays: reduce nasal congestion. Some may lead to habitual use; some may elevate blood pressure.
- Cromolyn Nasal Sprays: help prevent and treat allergy symptoms. They are very safe but must be used often.
- Immunotherapy – Allergy shots are called immunotherapy and may help to make your immune system less sensitive to the things that cause your allergy symptoms. Allergy shots help 80-90% of people with allergies. Many patients consider themselves “cured” after completing the shots, but some will suffer a recurrence. Most patients who complete the full program of shots usually do not need to take the 3 to 5 years of shots again. A few patients get only short-term relief and continue to need shots monthly. Your doctor can help you decide if allergy shots would work well for you. Immunotherapy should be used for people who:
- Are allergic to an unavoidable plant or animal.
- Take large amounts of medicine to control symptoms but still have allergies.
- Have allergies that seriously affect daily life.
- Have lost days of work due to fatigue and infection.
- Are willing to make a commitment to 3 to 5 years of weekly injections.
Allergy shots may help you to: no longer need allergy medicine, have fewer or milder allergy symptoms, no longer have allergy symptoms, not have to visit your Health Care Provider as often, and lower other medical costs.
How Allergy Shots Work
Allergy shots teach the immune system to react less to the things that cause your allergy symptoms by decreasing the levels of allergic antibody and decreasing the release of histamine that causes many of your allergy symptoms.
Side Effects of Allergy Shots
The needle used to give allergy shots is very thin and small. Most patients think the shots are uncomfortable but not painful. Allergic reactions are rare, but because the injection contains a material that your are allergic to, a risk does exist. To prevent an allergic reaction the material in the shot is diluted and the shots are given in a doctor’s office that is equipped and staffed to treat an allergic reaction. (For patients who give themselves shots at home, they are first educated to recognize the beginning of an allergic reaction and given an anaphylaxis kit to treat themselves should one occur.)
Frequency of Allergy Shots
To be effective, allergy shots usually take at least several years of treatment. Allergy shots are given every 7 days for best relief and are continued for 3-5 years. You should start to feel some relief within 2 months of getting shots.
Environmental Controls – There are many ways you can help yourself if you have allergies. Besides following your doctor’s directions carefully and taking your medication as directed, you can also avoid the things that cause your allergy symptoms.
- Can collect on your hair during the day. Avoid by covering or washing your hair before going to bed.
- Are found outside especially between 5:00 and 11:00 am. Avoid by staying inside when pollen counts are high, keeping car windows closed, and avoiding outdoor exercise.
- Can come into your house through an open window. Avoid by closing windows during the pollen season and especially on windy days, use a HEPA filter that cleans the air, and call the National Allergy Bureau (NAB) at (800) 9-POLLEN or (800) 976-5536 for reliable weekly pollen and mold spore counts.
- Can also collect on hair and come in through open windows. Avoid as you would pollen.
- Can be dispersed into the air when you mow the grass. Avoid by wearing a long-sleeved shirt, hat and gloves, wearing a painter’s mask, and changing your clothes and showering to wash away molds.
- Grows in damp, humid areas. Avoid by cleaning bathroom and kitchen with mold/mildew remover, using a de-humidifier to keep humidity less than 50%, and changing the filters on air conditioners and furnaces often.
- Can be dispersed in the air when you mow the lawn and during pollen season. Avoid by wearing a long-sleeved shirt, hat, mask and gloves and changing clothes and showering.
- Smoke damages hairlike structures called cilia that move mucus out of the nose and lungs. Avoid by asking for a “no smoking” area in public places.
- Is not a common problem for people with nasal symptoms. However, certain food allergies can cause nasal symptoms. If you think you have a food allergy, discuss with your doctor.
- Allergies to house dust is very common due to tiny transparent creatures called dust mites that live on human skin. They live in mattresses, pillows, carpets, stuffed animals, and upholstered furniture. Avoid by using dust mite barriers on pillows, mattresses, and boxsprings, removing stuffed animals from sleeping areas, washing all sheets in hot water once a week, removing carpet from your bedroom, vacuuming frequently with an efficient vacuum cleaner that has multilayered filter bags.
- Shed small cells called dander from their hair, fur and feathers. Animal dander, saliva and urine remain in carpets and mattresses. Avoid by keeping pets outdoors and especially out of bedrooms, off furniture, rugs and mattresses. Bathe pets weekly if possible.
- Perfumes, dyes, chemicals glues, cleaning agents, paints, and insecticides can give off strong irritating odors. Avoid by staying out of freshly painted rooms and off of new carpets, wearing a protective mask when working with irritating agents, and ventilating any room in which you are using chemical agents.
Allergies can cause sinus problems. Allergies cause inflammation and blockage of the sinus openings that normally allow drainage. The blocked fluid in the sinuses can become infected, leading to sinusitis. Symptoms of sinusitis include: severe headache, facial pain and especially teeth pain, nasal and ear congestion, fever, fatigue, and yellow or green nasal discharge. Often your doctor can diagnose sinusitis by the history of your illness and an examination. Sometimes diagnosis may require a sinus x-ray or computed tomographic (CT) scan. Antibiotics, decongestants, and treatment to help drainage are usually prescribed to treat sinusitis. If you have allergies, you can avoid getting sinusitis by eating right, resting and exercising; using a decongestant to avoid sinus congestion; and taking the full course of antibiotics as prescribed.