Understanding Allergic Reactions

Health Professional

We get a lot of questions on this site about what people assume are allergic reactions to something. But the truth is, some of the symptoms described don't sound at all like allergic reactions. It seems there is a lot of confusion about what an allergic reaction truly is, so today's post will help shed some light on this issue.

What Is an Allergic Reaction?

An allergic reaction is a series of events in your body that occurs in response to an "invasion" by a foreign substance wrongly interpreted as a threat to your health. It is your body's attempt to protect itself.

This reaction begins in your immune system, which is designed to protect you from truly harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses and toxins. But in the case of allergies, the immune system overreacts. This is called being hypersensitive. An antibody called IgE is a big factor in the immune response associated with allergy. In fact, a blood test can measure the level of IgE in your body and tell a doctor that you probably have allergies.

What Triggers an Allergic Reaction?

Almost anything can act as an allergen or allergic reaction trigger, but certain substances are more likely to have this effect. Foods, pollen, dust, furry or feathered animals, and molds are some of the most common allergens. Latex, chemical fumes, stinging insects and medication can also trigger allergic reactions.

Who Is Susceptible to Allergic Reactions?

Anyone can have a reaction, but certain people are more likely than others to have them. For instance:

  • You've had an allergic reaction in the past
  • You have a parent or sibling who are allergic
  • You have asthma
  • You have sinusitis

Allergic reactions can vary greatly from person to person, as can the things they are allergic to.

How Do I Know If I'm Having an Allergic Reaction?

The specific symptoms associated with an allergic reaction depends on where the   reaction is occurring in your body and can also vary in intensity. But let's look at some of the more common symptoms.

Nasal Allergies

By far, the most common type of allergic reaction, nasal allergies cause symptoms such as:

  • Sneezng
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Coughing
  • Itchy mouth, nose, throat

Eye Allergies

  • Itchy, teary, burning eyes
  • Mucus discharge of the eyes
  • Eyes and the surrounding tissues are irritated, red, & swollen

Skin Allergies

  • Hives
  • Rashes
  • Dry, itchy skin

Food Allergies

  • Tingling & swellling of the mouth, nose, throat
  • Hives, rash
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Dizziness or fainting

In most cases, all of the types of allergic reactions described above may be bothersome, but you can live with them. Occasionally, though, an allergic reaction becomes so severe, it can be life-threatening. This is called anaphylaxis and you can read more about it here.

It's important to understand that many of the symptoms listed above could also be caused by other conditions. In fact, many skin conditions are often thought to be allergies at first, but in fact are not.

How Should an Allergic Reaction Be Handled?

First of all, you need to make sure that an allergic reaction is really at the root of the symptoms you're having. If it's not, then the allergy treatment you use will not help. In fact, if you take allergy medicine for symptoms you think are related to allergies and it doesn't help, it might be that your symptoms are not allergy related at all.

It's never a good idea to try to diagnose yourself. If you think you are having an allergic reaction, then talk to your doctor, who can help you decide what's going on in your body. And then the docton can recommend the right treatment for you.

Commonly, medicines that interfere in some way with the immune process are prescribed. This includes antihistamines, leukotriene modifiers and steroids. For severe anaphylaxis reactions, epinephrine may be needed.