The Itch on Allergies

Story: Maritza Manresa

Those pesky allergies – they are such an inconvenience and annoyance for so many people. Having allergies is a very common condition, affecting many people in one form or another. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, one in five Americans suffer from some type of allergy, making allergies the fifth leading chronic disease in the U.S. Suffering from allergies can range from having an allergic reaction, like sneezing to regular household dust… to having life-threatening allergic reactions to the sting of a flying insect such as a bee or wasp.
According to Dr. George Stewart, II, MD, Allergy & Asthma Care of Florida, allergies are the result of an overreaction of the immune system to an allergen (foreign protein substance) that is breathed in, consumed, or either injected or touched. This overreaction of the immune system can then result in the person experiencing symptoms such as sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, coughing, scratchy throat, runny nose, rashes, and hives. A severe allergic reaction can result in low blood pressure, hives, rashes, asthma attacks, difficulty breathing, and even death- in the most severe cases.

There are so many specific things people can be allergic to, that are too many to mention. However, there are several general types of allergies which are most commonly dealt with by the general population.

Environmental Allergies
These allergies include outdoor allergies such as seasonal allergies, nasal allergies, and hay fever – all of which can be triggered by tree, grass and weed pollen. Indoor environmental allergies include dog, cat and rodent dander, mold spores, and cockroach and dust mite allergens. “Cockroach?” you may ask yourself. It is not that you have an allergic reaction to the cockroach itself, it is a reaction to the very small particles cockroaches leave behind, small enough to be inhaled, thus causing a reaction. Allergies to pets are quite common, especially cat dander. It is the highest allergen when it comes to animals. The problem with the cat dander is, particles from the skin flake off and get air borne, thus getting on clothes, furniture and the air you breathe.  

Food Allergies
“Food allergies are not as common as people may think. There is more food intolerance than food allergies,” said Dr. Stewart. People often confuse being intolerant to some foods for being allergic to those foods. For instance, a lot of people say they are “allergic to milk” when, in fact, most of the time they are simply lactose intolerant. The intolerance to lactose is caused by a lack of the enzyme necessary to process milk and other dairy products. As such, it is an enzyme deficiency… not an allergy. Enzyme deficiencies can be treated with over-the-counter enzyme tables to help you digest such foods.

True food allergies can be determined by skin or blood tests. These food allergies, 90% of the time, can be caused by dairy products, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Some food allergies may not be to a specific food, but rather to additives or preservatives in the food. And, according to Dr. Stewart, there are so many foods and chemicals, it is impossible to test for every single thing. However, he recommends if you are tested for a food allergy and your test comes back positive, then you should avoid that food all together.

Skin Allergies
The most common skin allergy triggers are plants such as poison ivy, oak, and sumac. However, some people can have a skin allergic reaction to certain foods or to latex. Some of the most commonly known skin allergic reactions are atopic dermatitis, eczema, and hives.

Insect Sting/Bite Allergies
Allergic reactions to insect bites or stings are not to be taken lightly. According to Dr. Stewart a fire ant can cause life-threatening injuries to somebody who is highly allergic to their venom. The same holds true for bee, wasp, and hornet stings. “That is why it is so important for people who have severe allergic reactions to insect’s bites and stings to carry EpiPens as they have a 95% success rate in preventing life-threatening reactions,” said Dr. Stewart. EpiPens are portable auto-injectors containing epinephrine which people can self-administer. Additionally, because so often it is hard to tell which flying insect actually stung the person, the patient is treated for all flying insects’ stings to make sure every type of venom is covered.

Allergies are not a disease, so there are no cures. However, with proper treatment and prevention, allergies can be successfully managed. For instance, people can undergo extensive testing to determine what they may be allergic to and then receive personalized allergy injections. According to Dr. Stewart allergy injections are very important because most patients will eventually become desensitized. For instance, in the case of a flying insect sting, the person may experience pain, but the sting will no longer be harmful or life-threatening.

As in most things in life, the key to avoiding unpleasant aftermaths is to be ahead of the game. Allergic reactions can be very unpleasant and nasty experiences. If you know you are allergic to cats and are planning a visit to someone who owns a cat, take something for allergies before you go to ease the reaction. If you know you are highly allergic to ant bites, make sure you always carry that EpiPen with you as it can make the difference between life and death.

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