Itching, sneezing, hives, rashes, coughing, runny nosewelcome to the world of allergies. From cats, dogs, pollen, grass, molds, and perfume samples, the list of irritants is long and varied but the results are the samea generally miserable situation.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) estimates that more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergic diseases and that 54.6% of the U.S. population tests positive to one or more allergens. And allergies are big business, with the NIAID reporting an estimated 7 million health care visits per year for contact dermatitis, and 14 million office visits in 2002 alone for allergic rhinitis. The NIAID adds that chronic sinusitis is the most commonly reported chronic disease, affecting 16.3% of the population (almost 32 million people in 1997). From hives and dermatitis to rhinitis and sinusitis, allergies can cause any one of a number of reactions you may see in members of your family.
When your body’s immune system displays a reaction to something that is normally harmless to the general population, you have an allergy. In such a case, your body mistakenly thinks the substance is harmful to your body and, in an attempt to protect the body, your immune system produces antibodies to the substance or allergen. The antibodies, in turn, cause specific cells in your body to release chemicals into your bloodstream, most commonly histamine, which affects your respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, and skin. In turn, the NIAID says your body displays the typical allergic reaction symptoms including:
Pets are particularly sensitive areas when it comes to allergies. While most people believe that their allergy to pets is caused by the animal’s fur, the NIAID states that the major allergens are proteins in the animal’s saliva that sticks to the fur when the animal licks itself. Urine can also be a source of these proteins and when it dries the proteins can become airborne. The NIAID adds that cats may be more likely to cause allergies than dogs because they lick themselves more, are held more, and spend more time in the house at close proximity to their owners. Surprisingly, allergies to animals can take up to two years to develop and may not end until six months after contact with the animal has ended. Since pet allergens can remain viable in carpets and upholstery for months, the NIAID recommends that anyone with animal allergies check with landlords or previous homeowners to find out if animals were present.
In addition, some people have sensitivity to chemicals and may experience allergic reactions to cigarette smoke, plastic, perfume, new carpet, paint, and plants. Others have the more typical reaction to any of the various tree, grass, and weed pollens that may be present in the air at any given time.
Testing for allergies is possible and can be done in either of two ways. Skin tests involve applying extracts of potential allergens to the patient’s skin (usually on the arm or back with a scratch or needle injection). If the person exhibits a positive reaction to the allergen, a small, raised, reddened area will appear at the application site. Blood tests can also be used to detect the levels of antibody to a particular allergen that exists in the body.
Once an allergy is diagnosed, a method of treatment can be determined. The NIAID recommends, as a first step, avoiding the allergen whenever possible. Allergy medicines such as antihistamines, cromolyn sodium nasal spray, and prescription nasal steroids can help block the reaction to the release of histamine in a person’s bodythus reducing the severity of respiratory symptoms. Over-the-counter decongestants help relieve the drainage and congestion associated with nasal allergies. In more severe cases, allergy shots may be necessary to help an allergic person develop more of a tolerance to any allergens that pose a problem.
So next time the sniffles visit your home and a cold doesn’t seem likely, it just may be your body’s histamine assault attempting to protect you.
As with any health related situation, always check with your family physician for a proper diagnosis and recommended course of treatment.
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