What are Allergies?

Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance such as pollen, bee venom, pet dander, or food that doesn't cause a reaction in most people.

Your immune system produces substances known as antibodies. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as harmful, even though it isn't. When you come into contact with the allergen, your immune system's reaction can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system.

The severity of allergies varies from person to person and can range from minor irritation to anaphylaxis a potentially life-threatening emergency. While most allergies can't be cured, treatments can help relieve your allergy symptoms.

What happens when you have an allergic reaction?
When a person who is allergic to a particular allergen comes into contact with it, an allergic reaction occurs:

  • When the allergen (such as pollen) enters the body, it triggers an antibody response.
  • The antibodies attach themselves to mast cells.
  • When the pollen comes into contact with the antibodies, the mast cells respond by releasing histamine.
  • When the histamine release is due to an allergen, the resulting inflammation (redness and swelling) is irritating and uncomfortable.
Similar reactions can occur to some chemicals and food additives. However, if they do not involve the immune system, they are known as adverse reactions, not allergies.

Which areas of the body may be affected?
  • People experience different symptoms, depending on the allergen and where it enters the body. Allergic reactions can involve many parts of the body at the same time.

Nose, eyes, sinuses, and throat
When allergens are breathed in, the release of histamine causes the lining of the nose to produce more mucus and become swollen and inflamed. It causes the nose to run and itch, and violent sneezing may occur. Eyes may start to water and people may get a sore throat.

Lungs and chest
Asthma can be triggered during an allergic reaction. When an allergen is breathed in, the lining of the passages in the lungs swells and makes breathing difficult.

Stomach and bowel
Foods that commonly cause allergy include peanuts, seafood, dairy products, and eggs. Cow's milk allergy in infants may occur and can cause eczema, asthma, colic, and stomach upset. Some people cannot digest lactose (milk sugar). Lactose intolerance causes stomach upsets, but should not be confused with allergy.

Skin problems that can be triggered by allergies include atopic dermatitis (eczema) and urticaria (hives).

Life-threatening allergic reactions require immediate treatment
  • Most allergic reactions are mild to moderate and do not cause significant problems. However, a small number of people may experience a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, which requires immediate life-saving medication. Allergens that may cause anaphylaxis include foods, insects, and medications. 

Effective prevention and treatment options are available
  • Allergen avoidance or minimization relies on identifying the cause of the allergy and taking steps to reduce exposure to the allergen. For example, reducing dust mites in the home may help reduce symptoms in people who are allergic to mites.
  • Medications used to treat allergies include:
  1. Antihistamines block histamine release from mast cells, reducing symptoms. Non-sedating antihistamine tablets are available from pharmacies without a prescription. Antihistamine nasal and eye sprays can also be used.
  2. Intranasal corticosteroid nasal sprays (INCS) are effective for the treatment of moderate to severe allergic rhinitis when used correctly. A prescription may be required for a stronger dose of INCS. Ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
  3. Combination therapies (INCS and antihistamine) are used for the treatment of moderate to severe allergic rhinitis and offer the advantages of both medications.
  4. Medicated eye drops can be helpful in some cases, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
  5. Adrenaline (epinephrine) - is used for first aid emergency treatment of life-threatening severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis). Adrenaline is usually given using an adrenaline autoinjector that can be given without medical training.
  6. Non-medicated treatments such as saline sprays are used for treating allergic rhinitis and sinusitis.
  7. Allergen immunotherapy (also known as desensitization) is a long-term treatment that changes the immune system's response to allergens. It involves the administration of regular, gradually increasing amounts of allergen extracts, by injections or by sublingual tablets, sprays, or drops.

If you have an allergy see your local pharmacist or doctor. In some cases, you will be referred to a clinical immunology/allergy specialist for further investigations and advice.

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