What are allergies?
Allergies occur when allergens—normally harmless substances—are absorbed by an allergic person. The most common allergens include pollen, molds, dust mites, animal dander, foods, medications, cockroach droppings and insect stings.
That person’s immune system, thinking the allergen is an invader, overreacts to it by producing IgE antibodies, or proteins that work to protect your body against the allergen. These antibodies attach themselves to special cells, and as part of the process, produce histamine and other chemicals that spark allergy symptoms like runny nose, watery eyes, itching and sneezing.
Taking a shot at allergies
Some allergies just won’t quit. In these cases where medications don’t work or aren’t tolerated, or allergen avoidance isn’t an option, allergy shots or injections may do the trick.
Called immunotherapy, these shots contain a small amount of the substances that cause an allergic response. This helps stimulate your immune system. Over the course of a few years, your healthcare provider will increase the amount of the allergen in each shot so you become desensitized to the allergen and experience fewer symptoms. Symptoms usually start improving in the first year of treatment. Some people remain symptom-free after treatment ends, while others require regular shots to keep allergies from coming back.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology estimates that immunotherapy can help alleviate symptoms in about 85 percent of those suffering from nasal allergy symptoms. Still, these shots aren’t for everyone. People with uncontrolled asthma or heart and lung problems may not be candidates. Talk with your healthcare provider about whether allergy shots are right for you.
Many people are more than happy to kiss winter goodbye and welcome spring with open arms. But if you’re one of the millions of allergy sufferers in this country, spring is the beginning of a season of misery.
Sometimes called hay fever, seasonal allergic rhinitis is a reaction to the pollen from trees, grasses, weeds or mold spores, depending on the season. Despite the prevalence of allergies—about 50 million Americans are affected—some people still have misconceptions about them. Here are some of the most common:
- Myth: Allergies are minor and don’t need to be treated.
Fact: Sneezing, congestion, headaches, fatigue and other allergy symptoms can really make your life miserable. In some cases, allergies can be especially harmful to your health. For example, severe, untreated hay fever can lead to asthma and sinusitis. Untreated asthma can become chronic, so if you suffer from allergy symptoms, seek help from an allergist right away.
- Myth: There’s no point in taking allergy medications because they all just become ineffective after awhile.
Fact: For most allergy medications, this isn’t true. What you think of as your body getting used to your medications could just be your allergies overpowering them—whether they’re over-the-counter or prescription. For example, nasal sprays may have a tough time getting up into the nasal passages because of congestion. That said, a small segment of allergy medications can become ineffective, or make your condition worse if used too frequently. For example, over-using the nasal sprays oxymetazoline and phenylephrine can result in a worsening of congestion called rhinitis medicamentosa.
- Myth: I only need to take allergy medications when I feel symptoms coming on.
Fact: While medications like antihistamines can work well if you take them after the start of symptoms, you’ll get the best results if you take them before your allergies are in full swing.
- Myth: If I’m allergic to something where I live, I can move to stop the symptoms.
Fact: Allergies are often inherited and predispose you to allergic reactions to many different substances. If you move to another place, you’ll likely develop a whole new set of allergies. You may even be lulled into a false sense of security when these new allergies don’t surface right way. However, it can take months or years after moving somewhere to develop allergies.
- Myth: I can be cured of my allergies.
Fact: No magic pill exists that can rid you of allergies once and for all. And since the tendency toward allergies is inherited, you shouldn’t focus on a cure; rather, take steps to control your allergies, such as early detection, medication and avoidance techniques like not going outside when pollen counts are high (many weather reports include this information).