Allergy Info

1. What is an allergy?

Allergy is a genetic condition causing the body to respond to harmless substances in the environment as though they were dangerous invaders. This response produces symptoms that may be mild to life-threatening in susceptible people.

2. When does an allergy begin?
It occurs after a person with allergic tendencies is repeatedly exposed to the substance in his/her environment or his/her diet.

3. What causes an abnormal response?
When the allergic person comes into contact with the offending substance, his body's immune system rushes to his rescue and begins to produce antibodies to fight off the invader. These antibodies alter the way in which the body reacts, and may produce allergic symptoms.

4. Is there a name for these offending substances?
They are called allergens.

5. What kind of things are allergens?
Anything to which a person becomes allergic is an allergen. Certain substances, because of their physical and chemical structure are more likely to become allergens than others. Prime examples are ragweed and other pollens, and penicillin. Others are dust, mold, spores, animal dander, feathers, cereal grains, some air-borne chemical pollutants, drugs and insect venoms.

6. What are the most common allergic symptoms?
The most common allergic symptoms are hay fever, asthma and eczema.

7. What is hay fever?
"Hay fever" was named because of nasal symptoms developing during hay season, but most nasal allergies are called "hay fever". In hay fever, the lining of the nose becomes irritated, causing the sufferer to sneeze and the nose to become stuffed-up or to run. Eyes may itch or turn watery. Sometimes the ears feel blocked up. Hay fever occurs most frequently during the spring, summer or fall when trees, grasses and weeds produce pollen. One of the principal offenders is the ragweed plant which produces the pollen from late summer until frost.

8. What is asthma?
Asthma is a condition which affects breathing and the lungs. The patient wheezes, coughs and is short of breath.

9. What is eczema?
Eczema is an inflammation of the skin. It can take the form of red patches, crusts and scales. The affected area generally itches. The condition generally occurs from eating certain foods.

10. Do all allergic responses fall into one of these categories?
No. In addition to hay fever, asthma and eczema, there can be a wide range of allergic reactions suffered in all parts of the body. For example, headaches, hives, diarrhea and stomach distress can be the result of allergy.

11. Is an allergy really a serious illness?
An allergic reaction can be slight and annoying or very serious. The inflamed lining of the nose of someone who suffers from hay fever can become infected, making the symptoms worse. Most dangerous of all is a sudden, heavy dose of an allergen, especially one like a bee sting or drug injection. This can trigger a generalized allergic reaction bringing on collapse, shock or even death.

12. Are allergies inherited?
While specific allergies themselves are not inherited, the tendency towards allergies is. The more allergic one's family is, the more likely one is to develop allergies. Though the trend to develop allergies may not appear in all members of a family or even in every generation of a family, the tendency is still there.

13. Are allergies common?
It is estimated that at least 20% of the population is likely to develop some kind of allergy.

14. At what age is a person most likeley to develop an allergy?
It is most common for allergies to begin in childhood, but it is quite possible for allergic symptoms to make their first appearance at any age. You're never too old to develop an allergy.

15. Can an allergy be outgrown?
No. It is common for people to change the way their other allergic symptoms affect them, especially in childhood. For example, a baby may develop colic or eczema or have recurrent ear infection, but as it grows older, it may develop other allergic symptoms such as hay fever, ear fluid or asthma. Adults have many varied symptoms such as chronic post nasal drainage, rashes, and stomach and intestinal problems. Older patients still have a tendency to have allergic symptoms, although they may become less noticeable with maturity.

16. What causes a person to develop an allergy?
There is no standard way for an allergy to begin, and the onset may be sudden or gradual. For a person to become allergic to a substance, he/she must be exposed to it more than once, and generally that exposure is quite frequent. Often, symptoms develop after an unusual stress to the immune system, such as following a severe viral infection.

17. If I have an allergy, should I be treated by an Allergist?
Because allergies can produce such a wide range of symptoms, there are a number of doctors, both specialtists and general practitioners, in addition to allergists, who may be qualified to treat the allergic patient. For example, a skin allergy can be effectively treated by a dermatologist (a doctor who specialize in treating skin diseases) and an infantile cow's milk allergy may be treated by the child's own pediatrician. An internist who is concerned with lung disease may also be involved with allergies that affect the lungs. An allergist may be any physician trained in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies. There are general allergists who treat allergies throughout the body and specialty allergists, such as otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat specialists), who specialize in a specific part of the body.

18. Should an Otolaryngologist treat my allergies?
An otolaryngologist is a doctor specializing in the treatment of ear, nose and throat diseases. Half of the problems he/she encounters are probably due, either directly or indirectly, to allergy. Chronic nasal congestion and post nasal drip, seasonal or constant, is often allergic and may be complicated by chronic sinus and middle ear disease. Hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, weeping ear canals, and chronic sore throats may be due to allergy. The otolaryngologist who does his/her own allergy treatment is able to follow the patient's progress with specialized examinations and nose and throat medical and surgical treatment, such as polyp removal, placement of middle ear ventilating tubes, straightening of the nasal septum, and treatment of sinus infections. Otolaryngologists are trained and board certified in the medical treatment of allergy, and can offer surgical options that may help in specific situations.

19. What is the first treatment for allergies?
First of all, a careful history of the allergic person is taken. The most basic treatment, once an allergen has been identified, is to eliminate it. This may mean giving away a pet, avoiding certain jewelry and cosmetics, deleting specific foods from the diet, and alerting physicians about drug allergies.

20. What if the allergen can't be eliminated?
In the case of an allergen in the environment, such as dust, pollen, and mold, a thorough house cleaning, along with other careful preventive measures, will cut down on the exposure. However, if the allergen is seasonal pollen, moving may not be the solution since there might be tree or weed pollens in the new location which could bring about the development of another, equally distressful allergic reaction.

21. Then are drugs the answer?
Drug treatment has long been a cornerstone of allergy treatment. Antihistamines and/or decongestants (for the nose) and bronchodilators (for asthma) counteract the symptoms caused by the main chemical released by the body's immune system in an allergy attack. There are other drugs, both pills and nasal sprays, which can prevent the release of these inflammatory chemicals or suppress the immune reactions themselves.

22. What about Cortisone?
Steroids of the cortisone family can suppress allergic reactions, but often there is the risk that the patient may develop significant side effects. Newer steroid nose sprays will often relieve allergies and not cause the side effects.

23. What about allergy shots?
Injections (immunotherapy) have been a satisfactory treatment for many inhaled allergens (that is, pollens, dust, molds and animal dander). Before immunotherapy is begun, allergy tests are done in order to determine the offending allergens. Please see our testing info and instructions

24. What do allergy shots involve?
The patient is given small doses of his allergens by injection on a regular basis, usually weekly.

25. Is there a standard dosage for everyone?
No. The appropriate allergens and their doses must be determined individually for each patient. Skin testing (placing a minute amount of the allergen under the skin) and the RAST (blood test for specific allergies) are both widely used for this purpose. Both detect the substances to which a person is allergic, as well as the degree of sensitivity, which helps determine the initial treatment dose.

26. How long will I have to take shots?
The injections can bring significant relief within a few weeks, but may require longer. They are usually continued for 2 to 3 years. In some rare cases, unfortunately, it may be necessary to continue the treatment indefinitely.

27. How successful is the treatment?
Over 80% of the patients who receive regular shots experience significant improvement or complete relief of their symptoms.

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