Many are familiar with the itchy eyes and sneezes of allergies. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, affecting 100 million people each year.
In Oregon, allergies are common, thanks to our mild climate and some of our beautiful trees and grasses, causing year-round problems for some residents.
How Does an Allergy Start?
The body’s immune system has the important task of protecting the body from unknown intruders. As the immune system encounters these intruders, it creates antibodies to fight them off.
“When a person develops an allergy, the immune system identifies a particular allergen, such as pollen, as a threat, even though it isn’t to most people. Then, when that person touches or inhales pollen, their immune system reacts as if under attack, resulting in allergy symptoms like itchy eyes and runny nose,” said Austin Loranger, MD, of Samaritan Medical Group Pulmonology – Corvallis.
Allergies Can Begin at Any Age
“Often, we first notice an allergy early in life, and sometimes, kids outgrow those allergies, but they can also be a lifelong problem,” noted Dr. Loranger. “Consequently, it is possible to develop allergies at any age.”
Genetics play a role in allergies. Environment too, as certain areas of the country or certain times of the year can prompt a rise in allergens that cause difficulty.
“When a person moves to a new area, for instance, they may suddenly develop allergies because of their exposure to a new allergen – a different kind of tree or plant, perhaps,” Dr. Loranger said.
According to the AAFA, there are seven common allergens in the U.S.
- Pollen – Small granules that travel on the wind from plants, trees, grasses and weeds, pollen is a common trigger for seasonal allergies in spring, summer and fall, and in some areas like the Pacific Northwest, winter also.
- Food – The AAFA says that more than 20 million adults and children in the U.S. have food allergies to common foods, such as cow’s milk, soy, nuts, eggs, shellfish and wheat. Others may experience reactions or intolerance to foods like lactose, gluten or sulfites.
- Pets – A person can be allergic to pets of all kinds, from dogs and cats to birds and horses. The common allergen is the protein found in the pet’s dead skin cells (dander), saliva and urine, commonly found in fur, hair and feathers.
- Insects – While most people who are stung or bitten by an insect (bees, mosquitos) will have mild reactions like pain or itching at the site of the sting or bite, for those who are allergic to these insects, the symptoms can be life-threatening. The excrement of household pests that neither sting nor bite (dust mites, cockroaches) can also trigger allergies in people.
- Mold – Mold can grow on just about anything when moisture is present and produces spores that carry through the air and can be inhaled.
- Latex – A protein found in the sap of rubber trees grown in Africa and Southeast Asia, latex is a common ingredient in many products, such as balloons, rubber household gloves, medical gloves, condoms and contraceptives, dental products, bandages, foam mattresses and more. Allergy symptoms most commonly occur when a person comes into skin contact with latex.
- Medications – Allergy-like symptoms to a medication are referred to as “adverse reactions to drugs.” A true drug allergy is rare.
Common Allergy Symptoms
Allergy symptoms – even to the same allergen – can differ from person to person, ranging from mild to life-threatening.
- Runny or stuffy nose.
- Itchy, watery eyes.
- Can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms.
- Hives or skin rash.
- Tingling or itching in the mouth.
- Swelling of lips, tongue, throat.
- Wheezing or trouble breathing.
When Symptoms Become Severe
“Most people who struggle with allergies experience the more common symptoms. However, it is possible to have a severe allergic reaction requiring immediate medical response. If you have allergies, it is important to understand anaphylaxis and prepare for it, just in case,” Dr. Loranger said.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to an allergen.
“Anaphylaxis happens when the immune system floods the body with chemicals in reaction to an allergen, sending the body into shock. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, swelling, a rapid, weak pulse, skin rash or drop in blood pressure, all of which can lead to serious complications, if not treated with epinephrine (Epi pen) as quickly as possible,” explained Dr. Loranger.
Treatment for Allergies
“The most effective way to prevent allergies is to avoid the allergen – stop eating the food, for example, or limit time around the pet – but that isn’t possible with all allergens,” Dr. Loranger said. “Treatment then, is mostly about managing symptoms, usually with over-the-counter antihistamines and/or prescription medication.”
In some cases, immunotherapy may be needed.
“Immunotherapy involves exposing the immune system to small amounts of the allergen by injections or drops, and then gradually increasing that exposure amount over time until the immune system recognizes the allergen as not dangerous,”
Dr. Loranger explained. Dr. Loranger recommends seeing your primary care provider, especially if your allergy symptoms seem to worsen over time, or if remedies that previously worked no longer do.
“There are many reliable medications to treat allergy symptoms, and if one doesn’t work for you another might, so I suggest you seek help from your doctor rather than suffer,” Dr. Loranger said.
To find a primary care provider or clinic near you, visit samhealth.org.
Austin Loranger, MD, sees patients at Samaritan Medical Group Pulmonology – Corvallis. He can be reached at 541-768-1261.
Get tips for relieving seasonal allergies.