Allergies occur when the body’s natural immune system overreacts in response to a trigger that the immune system perceives as a threat. Triggers can include molds, spores, foods, drugs, plants, pet dander, chemical additives and environmental pollutants, as well as other factors, and they can vary from one person to another. When an allergic person encounters one of their triggers, the body sends out special chemicals to fight off the danger. In response, the body reacts with uncomfortable symptoms that can occur in the airways, digestive tract, skin and elsewhere.
Allergies can cause a whole host of symptoms depending on the trigger and where the reaction occurs, including:
- stuffy nose
- watery or itchy eyes
- sneezing, coughing and wheezing
- runny nose
- itchy throat or mouth
- hives or rashes
When symptoms occur in the mouth and throat, they can interfere with breathing and swallowing. Some people with severe allergic reactions may experience anaphylaxis, a serious reaction that can cause seizures, coma and even death. When severe reactions are known, patients may carry a special autoinjector device designed to self-administer epinephrine to stop the reaction.
Diagnosis begins with an evaluation of the symptoms as well as a detailed history of events leading up to the reaction. Skin testing or other tests may be used to help pinpoint the cause of some allergies.
Very mild allergies may be treated with over-the-counter medication, but they should still be evaluated by a doctor to ensure symptoms aren’t an indicator of a more serious issue. Moderate to severe allergies usually require prescription medicines to control symptoms, and some people may opt for allergy shots, or immunotherapy, to “teach” their immune systems not to overreact.