Allergies are a misguided reaction to foreign substances by your immune system, your body’s defense system against “invaders.” Normally, the human body defends itself against harmful things such as viruses or bacteria. But sometimes your defense system mistakenly attacks relatively harmless things such as dust, mold, or pollen.
These things are called allergens—substances that can be breathed, swallowed, or that touch the skin. Common allergic reactions, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), are linked to an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) produced by the immune system.
When exposed to an allergen, your body starts making a large amount of IgE antibodies. When exposed to the same allergen again, you may have a reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction will differ based on the type and amount of allergen, and how your body’s immune system reacts to it.
The most common allergens are:
- Household dust, dust mites and their waste
- Animal dander, urine, or oil from skin
- Chemicals used for manufacturing
- Certain foods
- Bug stings
- Cockroaches and their waste
Over time, you may become used to constant symptoms, such as sneezing, nasal congestion, or wheezing. It’s important to know, however, that these symptoms can often be stopped or controlled with the help of an allergist, a doctor who specializes in treating allergies—and you can have a better quality of life.
Fortunately, Cooper University Health Care is home to a team of allergists and otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat specialists) are experts in diagnosing and treating allergies and allergic rhinitis.
Risk Factors for Allergies
Allergies can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or race. While allergies are more common in children, a first-time allergic reaction can happen at any age, or come back after many years of remission.
There’s a tendency for allergies to happen in families, although what cause this isn’t well understood. In sensitive people, things such as hormones, stress, smoke, perfume, or other environmental irritants may also play a role. Often, the symptoms of allergies increase slowly over a period of time.
Symptoms of Allergies
An allergic reaction can happen anywhere in the body, including the skin, eyes, lining of the stomach, nose, sinuses, throat, and lungs. These are the places where immune system cells are found to fight off germs that are in breathed in, swallowed, or come in contact with the skin. Allergic reactions can cause:
- Stuffy nose, sneezing, itching, or runny nose, and itching in ears or roof of mouth
- Red, itchy, watery eyes
- Red, itchy, dry skin
- Hives or itchy welts
- Itchy rash
- Asthma symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing
Anaphylactic shock (anaphylaxis) can happen in extreme cases. Anaphylaxis is a serious, life-threatening reaction to certain allergens including a drug, food, bug venom or chemical. Body tissues may swell, including tissues in the throat. It can also cause a sudden drop in blood pressure. Other symptoms of anaphylaxis may include:
- Itching and hives over most of the body
- Swelling of the throat and tongue
- Difficulty breathing
- Stomach cramps, nausea, or diarrhea
- Loss of consciousness
Some people who are aware of their serious allergic reactions carry epinephrine. This drug can counteract many of the complications of anaphylaxis, as it can cause the circulation to improve by helping the dilated blood vessels constrict and open up the airways in the lungs. It also increases the rate and force of the heartbeat.
How Allergies Are Diagnosed
To determine the exact cause of your (or your child’s) symptoms, you may be referred to an allergist, a medical doctor who is trained to do specialized allergy testing. This testing may include:
- Skin testing: Using diluted solutions of specific allergens, your allergist gives you a shot with the solutions or puts them directly on your skin by making a scratch or small puncture. A small red area on the skin means that you have had a reaction.
- Blood test: This test involves taking a blood sample, adding an allergen to the sample, and measuring the amount of IgE)antibodies produced in response to the allergen.
How Allergies Are Treated
Treatment depends on your age, overall health, tolerance for certain medications, how severe your symptoms are, and your personal preferences. Treatment for allergies may include:
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy) are appropriate for people with allergic rhinitis, conjunctivitis (eye reaction), allergy-triggered asthma, or those with a stinging bug allergy. Since it can take 6 to 18 months for allergy shots to become effective, you may need to take allergy medications in the meantime. These medicines can include:
- Steroid nasal sprays
- Asthma medication (controlling asthma may help control allergic rhinitis is some patients)
Prevention is also an important part of managing allergies. Measures for avoiding exposure to the substances that trigger your allergies include:
- Stay indoors when the pollen count is high and on windy days
- Dust-proof your home, particularly the bedroom
- When possible, get rid of carpeting, Venetian blinds, down-filled blankets or pillows, closets filled with clothes
- Wash bedding, curtains, and clothing often in hot water to get rid of dust mites
- Keep bedding in dust covers when possible
- Use air conditioning instead of opening the windows
- Put a dehumidifier in damp parts of the home, but remember to clean it often
- Wear face masks when working in the yard
Go on vacation by the beach during the heaviest part of the pollen season
Why Choose Us to Treat Allergies
As a tertiary-care, academic medical center, Cooper University Health Care is home to physicians and surgeons with advanced training in their specialties, including Allergy/Immunology and Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose, and Throat, or ENT).
With this expertise, our allergists are uniquely qualified to accurately diagnose and effectively treat the full spectrum of allergic conditions. In addition, they work closely with our ENT specialists, for whom allergic rhinitis is one of the most common conditions they see.
To learn more about the services available in the Division of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery or to schedule an appointment, please call 856-342-3113.