In answering the question of what are allergies, we have to know that in the case of an allergy, the immune system is overly sensitive to actually harmless foreign substances (allergens) such as plant pollen or certain foods. Sometimes, the symptoms are only mild but they can also be very stressful and restrict everyday life.
There are several ways to treat an allergy. Some allergy triggers can be avoided whereas others can hardly be avoided. Typical triggers for an allergy are:
- Domestic and farm animals
- Food – certain fruits, nuts, and eggs
- Medication – certain antibiotics and aspirin
- Contact allergens (e.g. metals or fragrances) –
- House dust mites
- Moulds that on can breath in when released into the atmosphere
The most common allergic reactions occur in the respiratory tract, skin, and mucous membranes. These symptoms usually appear immediately after contact and sometimes even after hours or days.
Allergies are also known as hypersensitivity. However, there are hypersensitivities that have nothing to do with an allergy. These include certain food intolerances. Since symptoms can be similar, a thorough medical examination is important. If it is established that the symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction, they can be treated accordingly.
What are the Symptoms of Allergies?
Typical symptoms of allergies are;
- Coughing and sneezing
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
- Swelling of the mucous membranes
- Breathing problems
- Itching – skin rash
- Gastrointestinal problems
Most of the time, the parts of the body that react are in direct contact with the allergen(s). Food can also cause itching and swelling of the mouth and tongue.
Pollen comes into contact with the upper respiratory tract first, causing a runny nose or sneezing.
Seasonal hay fever is only noticeable when pollen is in flight. Allergies to house dust mites or pets can cause discomfort all year round as the allergens are not only in the air, in spring or summer. In the case of allergies to medication and insect venom, the symptoms are limited to individual situations but often much more severe.
An anaphylactic reaction can occur if you are allergic to food, insect venom, or certain active pharmaceutical ingredients. It is an emergency and can be life-threatening. These symptoms can also spread to other areas of the body. For example:
- The gastrointestinal tract
- The respiratory tract, or
- The cardiovascular system.
An anaphylactic reaction can cause itching, swelling, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, impaired consciousness, shortness of breath, or a drop in blood pressure and among other things.
What are the Causes and Risk Factors of allergies?
The tendency to allergies is often familial. Experts call such a tendency “atopy”. Whether this actually results in an allergy depends and among other things, on environmental influences. Factors such as air pollution and cigarette smoke can promote allergies and secondary diseases such as asthma.
In the event of an allergic reaction, the body’s immune system reacts to certain harmless foreign proteins (allergens) such as a pathogen or foreign body. Dust mites or food normally pose no threat to the body but they cause symptoms in the case of an allergy. This is because the immune system forms defense substances (IgE antibodies) against these substances. The reason is that it considers them harmful and tries to fight them.
These antibodies form when you first come into contact with the allergen and bind to certain cells. This process is called “sensitization”. If there is renewed contact afterward, these cells release chemical substances, which include the tissue hormone histamine. These substances then trigger allergic reactions such as sneezing, coughing, or a rash.
At what frequency do allergies occur?
With a focus on Europe, it is a known fact that about every third person in Europe is diagnosed with allergic disease in the course of their life. In the United Kingdom, it is reported that 1 in 4 people has an allergy. Around 20 to 25% of all children and adolescents have hay fever, asthma, or neurodermatitis. Over the past 30 years, the number of people with allergies has increased.
When do allergies start?
Allergies usually start in childhood and adolescence and often last a lifetime. However, some regress in adults. Certain food allergies, such as those against milk or hen’s eggs, can also disappear again but a peanut allergy usually does not disappear. Whether an allergy can regress depends on the trigger.
The symptoms are often only mild at first but then, they get worse over time. Sometimes there are other diseases as well. For example; hay fever can lead to a so-called change of floor over many years. This means that the symptoms spread to the lower respiratory tract and then, asthma develops. Allergies can also promote neurodermatitis.
An allergic reaction to pollen, for example, can be accompanied by an allergy to certain foods. Then one speaks of a cross allergy. A cross allergy arises because the different allergens contain similar proteins to which the immune system reacts.
Skin prick testing
One of the most prevalent allergy diagnostics is skin prick testing.
It entails applying a drop of liquid to your forearm that contains a material to which you might be allergic. After that, the skin beneath the drop is gently punctured.
An itchy, red bump will form within 15 minutes if you’re allergic to the substance.
Skin prick testing is not particularly unpleasant for most people, but it can be uncomfortable. It’s also really secure.
Antihistamines should not be taken before the test because they can affect the results.
To diagnose common allergies, blood testing can be used instead of or in addition to skin prick tests.
A sample of your blood is taken and analyzed to see if your immune system produces specific antibodies in reaction to an allergen.
Patch tests are performed to explore contact dermatitis, a type of eczema that is caused by your skin being exposed to an allergen.
A little amount of the suspected allergen is placed on special metal discs that are then taped to your skin for 48 hours and checked for a reaction.
If you suspect you have a food allergy, you may be recommended to avoid certain foods to see if your symptoms improve.
You may be asked to eat the item again after a few weeks to see if you have had another reaction.
Do not attempt this without first consulting with a trained healthcare expert.
A food challenge test may also be used to diagnose a food allergy in some situations.
During the test, you’ll be given steadily increasing amounts of the food you suspect you’re allergic to observe how you react under close observation.
This test is more dangerous than others since it might induce a severe reaction, but it is the most accurate technique to determine food allergies.
And challenge testing is usually done in a clinic so that if a serious reaction does occur, it may be treated.
How is an allergy diagnosed?
For an allergy to be diagnosed, there would be a medical interview, where the first question enquires about the complaints, your living conditions, and your medical history. There are various tests to detect an allergy:
Prick test: This test is used if an allergy such as hay fever is suspected and a reaction occurs immediately after contact with the trigger. For the test, possible allergens are applied to the forearm at some distance from one another. The skin is then lightly scratched in these areas so that the allergens get into the skin. If the skin becomes red in these areas and swells, similar to a large mosquito bite, it is an allergic reaction.
Conclusion about what are allergies
In this article, where we had a look at what are allergies, we now have an idea of what allergies are and how best to control them. Allergies can’t be cured but they can be controlled by using a combination of avoidance measures and medications. In a situation where it is severe,a health care service provider should be consulted.