Maybe you recently felt your eyes water and your nose and throat itch after playing with your cat; or you had to be admitted to a hospital after a bee sting… Allergies are very common, and their symptoms can range from being mildly annoying to being seriously life-threatening. That’s why it is important to be familiar with them.
What is an allergy and what are some common triggers?
When you have an allergy, your immune system overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance. It produces Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies which travel to cells and lead them to release histamine and other chemicals which cause an allergic reaction.
Allergies can be brought on by a number of different allergens, including:
• Insect stings
• Animal dander
How can you tell what you’re allergic to?
If you’ve been noticing a recurring allergic reaction to an allergen you can’t pinpoint, or if you had one serious reaction, you will need to see a specialist. The specialist will take your medical history, ask you questions about your symptoms and run skin or blood tests to try to determine what you are allergic to. These tests should be only done by a specialist as they are trained and ready to treat serious allergies.
Two types of skin tests are used to diagnose allergies: skin prick tests and intradermal skin tests. In a skin-prick test, a drop of a suspected allergen is pricked or scratched on the surface of the skin of the back or forearm. In the intradermal test, a small amount of the suspected allergen is injected right beneath the skin. Many allergens are tested at the same time.
Skin tests are fast- within 20 minutes of both tests, if you’re allergic to a substance, you will have itchy red bumps that look and feel like mosquito bites. Sometimes a reaction can occur several hours after the test. If it does, you should notify your doctor.
Sometimes your doctor will choose to do a blood test instead. In this case, a blood sample is sent to the lab for testing and the results come back in about a week. Although blood tests are less accurate, they are sometimes necessary because a patient cannot have a skin test done. Blood tests are usually used when:
The patient is taking an antihistamine or medicine that interferes with the testing but cannot be stopped
The patient already suffers from a serious skin condition like eczema or psoriasis which can be made worse by contact with the allergen
There is concern that the allergen may cause an extra strong reaction
For babies and very young children, where multiple skin pricks can be annoying
Blood tests take time and are slightly more expensive, but they can be more accurate when a patient has very dark skin or is taking medication that will affect skin results.
A blood test can help find allergies to pollen, molds, dust mites, animal dander (flakes of skin), insect stings, foods and some medicines.
Both skin and blood tests alone are not enough to diagnose an allergy though- they need to be interpreted by a specialist with your medical history. Additionally, when it comes to food and drug allergies, your specialist might decide to do a challenge test, where they gradually expose you to increasing quantities of the suspected allergen over time and monitor the results.
What are the symptoms of some common allergies and how are they diagnosed?
In general, the symptoms of allergic reactions usually appear in the nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, skin or digestive system. Allergies can also trigger asthma symptoms. In severe cases, allergies cause a life-threatening whole-body reaction known as anaphylaxis, which can lead to a serious drop in blood pressure, or affect your heart rate and breathing, and lead to cardiac arrest. Anaphylaxis is very dangerous and needs to be treated immediately with an epinephrine shot.
Allergy symptoms vary, depending on the substances that trigger them.
Hay Fever (allergic rhinitis):
Hay fever comes in 2 different forms. In seasonal allergic rhinitis, symptoms flare up in the spring, summer and early fall and are usually caused by mold spores or pollens from grass, trees and weeds. Perennial allergic rhinitis occurs year round and is brought on by an oversensitivity to dust mites, pet hair or skin, mold, cockroaches and irritants like cigarette smoke or perfume.
Symptoms of hay fever include:
Itching of the nose, eyes or roof of the mouth
Runny, stuffy nose
Watery, red or swollen eyes
Skin tests are typically used to diagnose hay fever, with the intradermal test being more accurate.
For hay fever, it’s important to try to stay clear of irritants whenever possible- for example by washing your hands well after playing with your pet, or removing dust with a damp cloth rather in order to reduce the spreading of dust mites. Other precautions you can take include wearing sun glasses outdoors and making sure your house is clean, especially in the warm and humid summer months when roaches and dust mites are more common.
You can take antihistamines to manage the symptoms of hay fever. However, if symptoms are really making you miserable, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy (shots taken over time).
While food allergies are most common in children, they can occur at any time. You can also develop them suddenly to foods you have been eating for years without facing problems, and you could have a severe reaction to an allergen that had only caused mild symptoms previously. Eight types of food lead to almost 90% of food allergies, and they are:
• Tree nuts
In adults, the most common food allergens are pollens found on fruits and vegetables, peanuts and tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
A food allergy may cause:
Swelling of the lips, tongue, face or throat
Hives (raised itchy bumps that are red or skin-colored)
Most food-related symptoms appear within two hours of exposure to the allergen, and sometimes within just a few minutes. In rare cases, they can appear 4-6 hours later or more.
If you suspect a food allergy, you should see an allergy specialist immediately. The allergist will take your medical history and may decide to run skin or blood tests (to measure the amount of antibodies in the blood), or an oral food challenge.
An oral food challenge is the most accurate way to diagnose a food allergy. During this test, the patient is gradually fed increasing amounts of the suspected trigger food under close supervision.
If diagnosed with a food allergy, you need to avoid the food you’re allergic to completely. In order to do that, you should always read food labels very carefully and ask about the ingredients of dishes you order at restaurants. Your allergist will also make sure you have an epinephrine auto-injector on you in case of emergencies.
Venom from the stings of five insects – honeybees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets and fire ants – are known to cause allergic reactions. These allergies can appear suddenly and at any age, even after many normal reactions to previous stings. In about 3% of adults, potentially life-threatening reactions can occur.
An insect sting allergy may cause:
A large area of swelling (edema) at the sting site and sometimes beyond
Itching or hives all over your body
Cough, chest tightness, wheezing or shortness of breath
A hoarse voice, swelling of the tongue or difficulty swallowing
Your allergist may diagnose an allergy to insect venom through a skin-prick test, a blood test or an intradermal skin test. The intradermal test is considered the most accurate.
If diagnosed with an insect sting allergy, it’s important to stay clear of the insects that cause your allergy. Also, your doctor may suggest you take allergy shots and keep an epinephrine injector on you in case of a sudden emergency.
Some drugs that have been found to bring about allergic reactions include:
Penicillin and related antibiotics
Antibiotics containing sulfonamides (sulfa drugs)
Aspirin, ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Drug allergies may cause:
In the case of drug allergies, skin tests can only be used for allergies to penicillin-type drugs. Your allergist may decide to give you a drug challenge test, where you are given the drug suspected of causing the reaction under very close supervision.
In the event of a severe drug allergy, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Skin allergies include eczema, a condition which causes skin to itch and peel; hives (uriticaria), red bumps that appear on the body which can be acute or chronic; and contact dermatitis, where a rash and blisters appear along with itching and burning when your skin comes into contact with an irritant.
Some people are allergic to latex, a material found in the gloves of health care workers like doctors, nurses and dentists or rubber balloons. Latex allergies can develop even after many exposures with no reaction. Symptoms of latex allergies include hives, itching, and a runny nose, but it can also be serious enough to cause chest tightness, difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis. Symptoms may appear within minutes.
You could also develop contact dermatitis from exposure to the chemicals in rubber gloves. Latex allergies are diagnosed through an allergy blood test.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening consequence of allergies:
Some food, drug and insect sting allergies can lead to anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening condition. Its symptoms include:
Loss of consciousness
A drop in blood pressure
Severe shortness of breath
A rapid, weak pulse
Nausea and vomiting
If you have previously had a severe allergic reaction or even a mild reaction to certain allergens that could potentially cause anaphylaxis (food, insect bites…), it is very important to keep at least 2 shots of epinephrine on you.
Now that you are aware, you can stay safe!
Knowing which symptoms to look out for and the possible allergens that could be triggering them will get you ready and more prepared to act. While hay fever can be very irritating, it is not dangerous. Other allergies however need to be taken very seriously. If you suspect any allergic reactions to foods, drugs or insect bites, you should book an appointment with an allergist immediately, who will be able to diagnose what you are allergic to and prescribe the necessary medication. Allergists will also help you keep track of when your hay fever symptoms get worse and what you can do to manage symptoms in your daily life, whether through taking certain precautions or medications.
In the event of an emergency, please contact us on BMG HOTLINE 1291 immediately.