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All About Allergies
Gesundheit! You canít stop sneezing, your eyes are itching, your nose is running and youíre covered in hives. Your allergies have struck again ó and all you want to do is spend the day feeling sorry for yourself. Youíre in good company. It is estimated that 50 million North Americans are affected by allergic conditions. But donít get lost in a sea of tissues every spring. There are ways to relieve the symptoms Ė or avoid getting them in the first place.

Allergies arenít merely just annoying; they can affect sleep, concentration, and productivityóand put you in a bad mood. Moreover, growing evidence shows that allergies and asthma may be two sides of the same coin: Asthmatics are more likely to be allergy sufferers, and those with allergies have a greater chance of developing asthma.

Allergies are the sixth leading cause of illness in the United States. An allergy refers to abnormal immune system reactions to things that are typically harmless to most people. When youíre allergic to something, your immune system mistakenly believes that this substance is harmful to your body.

Substances that cause allergic reactions, such as certain foods, dust, plant pollen, or medicines, are known as allergens. In trying to protect the body, the immune system produces IgE antibodies to that allergen. Those antibodies then cause certain cells in the body to release chemicals into the bloodstream, one of which is histamine.

Some allergic reactions can be severe, like difficulty breathing. An asthma attack, for example, is often an allergic reaction to something that is breathed into the lungs in a person who is susceptible.

Some types of allergies produce multiple symptoms, and in rare cases, an allergic reaction can become very severe or anaphylaxis, which can be characterized by difficulty breathing and/or swallowing, swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat or other parts of the body, and dizziness or loss of consciousness. Anaphylactic reactions can usually be treated successfully if proper medical procedures are followed.

Common Allergens

Some of the most common allergens are:

  • Pollen from trees, grass and weeds. Allergies that occur in the spring (late April and May) are often due to tree pollen. Allergies that occur in the summer (late May to mid-July) are often due to grass and weed pollen. Allergies that occur in the fall (late August to the first frost) are often due to ragweed.
  • Mold. Mold is common where water tends to collect, such as shower curtains, window moldings and damp basements. It can also be found in rotting logs, hay, mulches, commercial peat moss, compost piles and leaf litter. This allergy is usually worse during humid and rainy weather.
  • Animal dander. Proteins found in the skin, saliva, and urine of furry pets such as cats and dogs are allergens. You can be exposed to dander when handling an animal or from house dust that contains dander.
  • Dust. Many allergens, including dust mites, are in dust. Dust mites are tiny living creatures found in bedding, mattresses, carpeting and upholstered furniture. They live on dead skin cells and other things found in house dust.
  • Foods. Food allergies are most common in infants and often go away as a child gets older. The foods that people are most commonly allergic to are milk and other dairy products, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts, and seafood. Insect bites and stings. The venom (poison) in insect bites and stings causes allergic reactions in many people. These allergies can be severe and may cause an anaphylactic reaction in some people.
  • Airborne particles. These are often called environmental allergens, and theyíre the most common allergens. Some examples of airborne particles that can cause allergies in people are dust mites (tiny bugs that live in house dust); mold spores; animal dander (flakes of scaly, dried skin, and dried saliva from your pets); and pollen from grass, ragweed, and trees.
  • Medicines. Antibiotics ó medications used to treat infections ó are the most common types of medicines that cause allergic reactions. Many other medicines, including over-the-counter medications (those you can buy without a prescription), can also cause allergic reactions.
  • Chemicals. Some cosmetics or laundry detergents can cause people to break out in an itchy rash (hives). Usually, this is because the person has a reaction to the chemicals in these products. Dyes, household cleaners, and pesticides used on lawns or plants can also cause allergic reactions in some people.
The tendency to develop allergies is often hereditary; there is a 40%-60% chance of developing allergies if both parents have allergies, 20%-40% if one parent is allergic, and 5%-15% if neither parent is affected.

Some theories of the increased rate of allergies are: a decrease in breastfeeding; early introduction of potentially allergenic foods to an infantís diet; and high levels of air and water pollution.

How To Treat Allergies and Avoid Triggering Them

Here are some things that can help you avoid airborne allergens:

  • Keep family pets out of certain rooms, like your bedroom, and bathe them if necessary.
  • Remove carpets or rugs from your room (hard floor surfaces donít collect dust as much as carpets do).
  • Donít hang heavy drapes, and get rid of other items that allow dust to accumulate.
  • Clean frequently (or get someone else to clean if your allergy is severe)
  • Use special covers to seal pillows and mattresses if youíre allergic to dust mites.
  • If youíre allergic to pollen, keep windows closed when pollen seasonís at its peak, change your clothing after being outdoors ó and donít mow lawns.
  • Avoid damp areas, such as basements, if youíre allergic to mold, and keep bathrooms and other mold-prone areas clean and dry.
In some cases, like food allergies, avoiding the allergen is a life-saving necessity. Thatís because, unlike allergies to airborne particles that can be treated with shots or medications, the only way to treat food allergies is to avoid the allergen entirely. For example, people who are allergic to peanuts should avoid not only peanuts, but also any food that might contain even tiny traces of them.

Avoidance can help protect people against non-food or chemical allergens, too. In fact, for some people, eliminating exposure to an allergen is enough to prevent allergy symptoms and they donít need to take medicines or go through other allergy treatments.

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