Allergies affect more than 50 million people in the United States -- the poor souls who sniffle, sneeze, and get all clogged up when face to face with the allergen (or allergens) that set them off.
For many, allergies are seasonal and mild, requiring nothing more than getting extra tissue or taking a decongestant occasionally. For others, the allergy is to a known food, and as long as they avoid the food, no problem.
Nearly a third of people living in the U.S. believe they have a food allergy, according to a recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association . But only 5% of children and 4% of teens and adults have true food allergies.
Why do many people think they have a food allergy when they don't?
Experts say it’s because people don’t understand what really constitutes a food allergy and they often misuse the term.
“Unfortunately, the term ‘allergy’ is sometimes used by the public...
But for legions of others adults, allergies are so severe it interferes with their quality of life. The allergens -- whatever it is that sets off the symptoms -- may affect them more severely than others and may be harder to avoid.
Defining "severe" allergies, and pinpointing how many people are affected, is difficult even for allergists.
"When we say severe, we mean the allergies basically cause severe enough symptoms that they are interfering with life," says Paul V. Williams, MD, a staff allergist at Northwest Asthma & Allergy Center, Mount Vernon, Wash.
That means, for instance, having to take sick days to cope with symptoms so severe you can't work, or not being able to go outside on a day with a high pollen count, if that's your primary allergen.
If your allergies are this severe, you know who you are. And experts offer these three strategies for coping.
Allergy Strategy 1: Know Your Allergens
The top environmental allergens, Williams and other allergists tell WebMD, are:
"It's most common to be allergic to multiple things," Williams says, "but not necessarily all of them." Some people, however, are highly allergic to just one allergen, such as cat dander.
Whatever the allergen, it can trigger nasal symptoms, eye irritation and stinging, skin diseases or asthma, says Williams.
Sometimes it's clear what your allergen is. If you visit a house with a cat, for instance, and start to have symptoms, you know. If it's hay fever season and your nose starts running when you go outdoors, you know.
But if you can't figure out what the offending allergen is, you can ask for skin tests. A doctor will place a tiny bit of the suspected allergen under your skin and watch for a reaction. The doctor should then be sure that your symptoms match the allergen he used, Williams tells WebMD.