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AllergiesThe symptoms are familiar to millions of Americans - runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes - but it's not from a cold or flu, it's allergies. Allergic diseases are among the most common causes of disability in the United States, affecting over 40 million Americans, as many as one in six, according to the National Allergy Bureau (NAB). When someone has an allergy, they're sensitive to substances that don't affect most people, for example, pollen, mold, medications, even certain foods. An allergic reaction is our immune system doing its job to protect us from foreign substances. Unfortunately, it's a false alarm; most of these substances should pose no real danger to us.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is an abnormal reaction to a normally harmless substance. While these substances, called allergens, don't bother most people, an allergic person's body will overreact when exposed to them, releasing chemicals that cause the classic allergy symptoms. Depending on the cause, allergies can affect the skin, the respiratory system, the eyes and/or the digestive system. (Read about "Skin" "Respiratory System" "The Eye" "Digestive System")

Sometimes, the respiratory symptoms of an allergy resemble that of a cold. (Read about "The Common Cold") But there are important differences. Colds are caused by viruses (Read about "Microorganisms"), whereas allergies are caused by your body reacting to a certain substance. Also, colds can develop at any time after you've been infected, whereas allergies develop in the presence of the thing you're allergic to.

Allergies may be seasonal in nature. They can develop because of something you breathe in. (Read about "Pollen Allergies" "Mold Allergies" "Dust Allergies") They can develop because of something you ate. (Read about "Food Allergies") Or the symptoms of an allergy may develop when someone touches something, such as latex. (Read about "Latex Allergy") People can also develop an allergic reaction following a bug bite. (Read about "Insect Bites" "Bed Bugs")

For some people, this type of allergic reaction can be deadly. Anaphylactic shock (Read about "Anaphylaxis") can cause swelling of body tissues (including the throat), vomiting, cramps and a sudden drop in blood pressure. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) says anaphylaxis often occurs in sensitive individuals who are allergic to penicillin, stinging insects and shellfish or nuts. Each year it occurs in one to five percent of the U.S. population as a result of insect stings. Anaphylaxis can also occur as a result of exposure to pet dander, certain foods or other allergens. This type of reaction can be very dangerous, since swelling of throat tissue can impair a person's ability to breathe.

What causes an allergy?

The substances that set off an allergic reaction are called triggers or allergens. An allergic reaction involves two features of the human immune response. (Read about "The Immune System") One is the production of immunoglobulin E (IgE), a type of protein called an antibody that circulates through the blood. The other is the mast cell, a specific cell that occurs in all body tissues but is especially common in areas of the body that are typical sites of allergic reactions, including the nose and throat, lungs, skin and gastrointestinal tract.

The ability of a given individual to form IgE against something as benign as food is considered to be an inherited predisposition. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says generally, allergic people come from families in which allergies are common. Those allergies can be to just about anything - food, pollen, dander or other substances that can cause reactions. Someone with two allergic parents is more likely to develop allergies than someone with one allergic parent.

Before an allergic reaction can occur, a person who is predisposed to form IgE to the trigger first has to be exposed to it. As this trigger is encountered, it causes certain cells to produce specific IgE in large amounts. The IgE is then released and attaches to the surface of mast cells. The next time the person comes in contact with that trigger, it interacts with specific IgE on the surface of the mast cells and tells the cells to release chemicals such as histamine. Depending upon the tissue in which they are released, these chemicals will cause a person to have various symptoms. If the mast cells release chemicals in the ears, nose and throat, a person may feel an itching in the mouth and may have trouble breathing or swallowing. If the affected mast cells are in the gastrointestinal tract, the person may have abdominal pain or diarrhea. (Read about "Diarrhea") The chemicals released by skin mast cells, in contrast, can prompt hives.

If you develop severe allergic symptoms (breathing or swallowing difficulties, hives, dizziness or lightheadedness) you should immediately go to the emergency room. (Read about "Emergency Room") These symptoms can be treated with medications such as adrenaline, corticosteroids, antihistamines and intravenous fluids.

If you have a history of severe allergic reactions, (most commonly to bee stings or certain foods) your healthcare provider can prescribe an auto-injector. Auto-injectors are pre-filled syringes that automatically inject epinephrine. They often look like a pen.

You can follow the links below to learn more about different types of allergies and allergic reactions.

Allergic eczema, dermatitis: see Eczema and Dermatitis

Allergic rhinitis: see Sinusitis & Rhinitis

Anaphylaxis: see Anaphylaxis

Animals, dander: see Animal Dander

Conjunctivitis, allergic: see Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Eczema, allergic: see Eczema and Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis: see Eczema and Dermatitis

Dermatitis, allergic: see Eczema and Dermatitis

Dust: see Dust Allergies

Eczema, allergic: see Eczema and Dermatitis

Food: see Food Allergies

Hay fever: see Pollen Allergies

Hives, urticaria: see Hives (Urticaria)

Insect bites & stings: see Insect Bites

Latex: see Latex Allergy

Mites: see Dust Allergies

Mold: see Mold Allergies

Peanut allergy: see Food Allergies

Pets, dander: see Animal Dander

Pollen: see Pollen Allergies

Rashes: see Skin Rash

Rhinitis, allergic: see Sinusitis & Rhinitis

Rose fever: see Pollen Allergies

Rubber gloves, allergies: see Latex Allergy

Skin, eczema/dermatitis: see Eczema and Dermatitis

Skin, rash: see Skin Rash

Skin, hives: see Hives (Urticaria)

Urticaria, hives: see Hives (Urticaria)

All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.

© Concept Communications Media Group LLC

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By printing and/or reading this article, you agree that you accept all terms and conditions of use, as specified online.