Know the causes of allergies

Published 3:17 pm Friday, February 20, 2009

Are you among the thousands of people in Southwest Georgia suffering from allergies without knowing the cause?

You might begin to feel a tickle in your throat and some nasal congestion, so you take some decongestants and hope the pollen will soon go away.

Maybe it’s time to see an allergist and determine what triggers your allergic reaction, and get help for your suffering.

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What can an allergist do for you?

Allergists treat two of the nation’s most common health problems—allergies and asthma. Although symptoms may not always be severe, allergies and asthma are serious diseases and should be treated that way. Many people with allergies and asthma simply don’t realize how much better they can feel.

While you may already be seeing an allergist, you may not know all of the conditions allergists treat:

• Asthma and frequent cough. Asthma is a disease that affects the airways in the lungs, making them inflamed and swollen. The inflammation makes airways more likely to be bothered by allergy triggers and things such as smoke, stress, exercise or cold air. Airway muscle spasms block the flow of air to the lungs, causing symptoms that may include difficulty breathing, a tight feeling in the chest, coughing and wheezing. Sometimes the only symptom is a chronic cough, especially at night, after exercise or when laughing. Asthma may have only mild symptoms, or it can be life-threatening when attacks stop breathing altogether.

•  Allergic rhinitis (hay fever or sinus allergy). Allergic rhinitis is a general term used to describe allergic reactions that take place in the nose and nasal passages. Symptoms may include sneezing, stuffy nose, runny nose and itching of the nose, the eyes or the roof of the mouth. When triggered by pollens or outdoor molds—especially during the spring, summer or fall—the condition often is called “hay fever” or seasonal allergy. When the problem is caused by exposure to house dust mites, pets, indoor molds or other allergy triggers at home, school or work, it is called perennial allergic rhinitis.

• Eye allergies. Allergic reactions in the eyes, called eye allergies or allergic conjunctivitis, result in itching, redness, tearing and burning. They are often caused by the same allergy triggers that cause allergic rhinitis and also can result in many of the same symptoms such as sneezing, sniffling and a stuffy nose. While many people treat their nasal allergy symptoms, they often ignore eye symptoms that can be treated effectively with medication or immunotherapy.

• Skin allergies. Contact dermatitis, eczema and hives are skin reactions that can be caused by allergy triggers and other irritants. Sometimes the reaction can happen quickly. Other reactions may take hours or days, as in poison ivy. Common skin allergy triggers can be medicines, insect stings, foods, animals and chemicals used at home or work. Skin allergies may be worse under stress.

• Food allergies. An allergic reaction to food can cause mild to serious symptoms such as vomiting or nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, diarrhea, hives or other skin rashes, headaches, asthma or stuffy nose, sneezing and runny nose. In extreme cases, food allergy can trigger a severe and life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Some mild symptoms may actually be caused by a food sensitivity rather than an allergic reaction. An allergist can help determine if it is a true allergic reaction. Shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts are the most common food allergies in adults. Milk, eggs, soy, wheat, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts are the most common food allergies in children.

• Anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a rare allergic reaction that affects many parts of the body at the same time. If not treated quickly, it can be fatal. The trigger may be an insect sting, a food (such as peanuts), the latex in rubber products or a medication. The most dangerous symptoms of anaphylaxis affect the respiratory system (breathing) or cardiovascular system (heart and blood pressure). Symptoms can include some or all of the following:

• Hives, itchiness and redness on the skin, lips, eyelids or other areas of the body

• Wheezing or difficulty breathing

• Swelling of the tongue, throat, nose and lips

• Nausea, stomach cramping and vomiting or diarrhea

• Dizziness and fainting or loss of consciousness, which can lead to shock and heart failure.

Frequently these symptoms start suddenly without warning and rapidly get worse. At the first sign of anaphylaxis, a patient should get help immediately, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room. An allergist can help determine the triggers of anaphylaxis.

• Sinus infections. Sinus infections, also called sinusitis, are common in people with allergies that affect the nose such as allergic rhinitis. The constant stuffy and runny nose can inflame the nasal passages and make them swell. Symptoms include a runny nose with a thick discharge, cough and occasionally pain in the forehead, around and in between the eyes, or in the upper jaw, cheeks and teeth. In some cases, sinusitis can be chronic and cause several infections a year. People with asthma are more likely to have chronic sinus infections that can complicate their disease and make their symptoms more severe.

If you suffer from any of the above conditions, learn how an allergist can help find out the causes. Allergists have training and experience that allow them to identify the source of your suffering, and provide the most effective treatment.