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Allergies Health Center

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Allergy Basics

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What Is an Allergy?

Allergies are an abnormal response of the immune system. People who have allergies have an immune system that reacts to a usually harmless substance in the environment. This substance (pollen, mold, and animal dander, for example) is called an allergen.

Allergies are a very common problem, affecting at least two out of every 10 Americans.

Recommended Related to Allergies

Does Your Child Have a Cold, or Is it Allergies?

For a week, you've wiped your preschooler's runny nose all day long, then listened to her cough in her sleep all night. She's been looking and feeling miserable, and you want to help her get better, but you aren't sure exactly how to categorize her symptoms. Is it a cold, or does she have allergies? You aren't alone; many parents are confused about the proper way to treat a coughing, sneezing child, because colds and allergies often have overlapping symptoms. “I think most parents want a checklist,...

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What Happens During an Allergic Reaction?

First, a person is exposed to an allergen by inhaling it, swallowing it, or getting it on their skin. After a person is exposed to the allergen, a series of events create the allergic reaction:

  1. The body starts to produce a specific type of antibody, called IgE, to bind the allergen.
  2. The antibodies attach to a form of blood cell called a mast cell. Mast cells can be found in the airways, in the intestines, and elsewhere. The presence of mast cells in the airways and GI tract makes these areas more susceptible to allergen exposure.
  3. The allergens bind to the IgE, which is attached to the mast cell. This causes the mast cells to release a variety of chemicals into the blood. Histamine, the main chemical, causes most of the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

What Are the Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction?

Common symptoms of an allergic reaction to inhaled or skin allergens include:

Other exposures can cause different allergic reactions:

The severity of an allergic reaction’s symptoms can vary widely:

  • Mild symptoms may be almost unnoticeable, just making you feel a little “off.”
  • Moderate symptoms can make you feel ill, as if you’ve got a cold or even the flu.
  • Severe allergic reactions are extremely uncomfortable, even incapacitating.

Most symptoms of an allergic reaction go away shortly after the exposure stops.

The most severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. In anaphylaxis, allergens cause a whole-body allergic reaction that can include:

  • Hives and itching all over (not just in the exposed area)
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness or tightness in the throat
  • Tingling in the hands, feet, lips, or scalp

Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms can progress rapidly, so head for the emergency room if there’s any suspicion of anaphylaxis.

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