An allergy is an exaggerated response from a patient’s immune system to a normally harmless substance. Common allergens (the name given to these trigger substances) include pollen, mold, dust mites, pet dander, food and chemicals. Allergies affect about one out of every five Americans.
The immune system is the body’s first line of defense against germs and bacteria. Comprised of cells, proteins, tissues and organs, it is essential in maintaining the health and preventing infections. When a threat is perceived, the immune system responds by attacking the substances that are invading the body.
Allergies are the result of the immune system responding in an overprotective manner to a harmless substance. When an allergen is encountered, antibodies – proteins designed to protect against foreign invaders – are produced. These trigger the release of chemicals called histamines, which are responsible for the telltale symptoms of allergies: swelling, inflammation, itching and mucus production.
Allergies may be seasonal or occur year-round. Hay fever caused by pollen from grasses, trees and weeds is the most common seasonal allergy. Symptoms include stuffy and/or runny nose, sneezing, itchiness in the nose and throat, postnasal drip, itchy and watery eyes, pressure in the ears and fatigue. Year-round allergies produce the same symptoms; common ones are mold, dust mites, pet dander, environmental irritants like smog or smoke, medications and chemicals. Insect stings and bites fall in this category, too. They can produce a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
Avoiding the allergen trigger is the best method of preventing allergy attacks. Medications are available to reduce your immune system’s reaction and provide symptom relief; drugs such as antihistamines, decongestants, and corticosteroids can all prove helpful. Those whose allergies do not respond to medical treatment may be given allergy shots (immunotherapy) to build up a tolerance to the offending substance through regular injections given for several years.