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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

Living With Severe Allergies

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. But for legions of others adults, allergies are so severe it interferes with...

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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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