For a person with dog allergies, life in a dog-loving country isn't easy. Nearly 40% of U.S. households have a dog. Dog dander gets everywhere, including places where dogs have never set a paw. According to the National Institutes of Health, detectable levels of pet dander are in every home in the U.S.
So how can you get through life with an allergy to man's best friend? Here's a rundown of the causes and treatments of dog allergies, along with tips on reducing exposure.
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The symptoms of dog allergies are usually like those of any other nasal allergy. They include:
coughing and wheezing
red, itchy eyes
runny, itchy, stuffy nose
Some people with dog allergies also have skin reactions. For instance, their skin might break out where a dog licks them. Others with more severe allergies might develop hives on their face or chest. People with asthma as well as pet allergies can have especially serious symptoms.
Causes of Dog Allergies
You may have heard that some dog breeds trigger allergy symptoms while others don't, or that short-haired dogs are safe while long-haired dogs prone to shedding are not. But on the whole, experts say that isn't the case. In fact, one dog and another of the same breed can give off very different levels of allergen.
It's not the dog's hair or fur that's the real problem. Instead, people are usually allergic to the dander -- flakes of dead skin -- as well as the saliva and urine. So no matter how long or short the hair, any dog can potentially cause an allergic reaction.
You might wonder why dog dander has such an effect on you. People with allergies have oversensitive immune systems. Their bodies overreact to harmless substances -- like dog dander -- and attack it as they would bacteria or viruses. The sneezing and watery eyes are just the side effects of the body's attempt to destroy or flush out the allergen.
Testing for Dog Allergies
Your doctor can do either a skin test or a blood test called a RAST (radioallergosorbent test) to find out if you have dog allergies. Even if you're pretty certain that you're allergic, testing is always a good idea. Some people who assume that they have dog allergies turn out not to have them. Instead, they're allergic to the pollen or mold that the dog is carrying in on its coat from outside.
While allergy tests are helpful, they're not always conclusive. So if you own a dog, your doctor might want you to try living without it for a while to see how you do. To get a good sense of your symptoms, it might take some extended time apart. It often takes months before the level of dander in the house drops down to a level resembling that of a house without a dog.