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Everything You Need to Know About Allergies

An allergy is an immune system response to a foreign substance that’s not typically harmful to your body. These foreign substances are called allergens. They can include certain foods, pollen, or pet dander.

Your immune system’s job is to keep you healthy by fighting harmful pathogens. It does this by attacking anything it thinks could put your body in danger. Depending on the allergen, this response may involve inflammation, sneezing, or a host of other symptoms.

Your immune system normally adjusts to your environment. For example, when your body encounters something like pet dander, it should realize it’s harmless. In people with dander allergies, the immune system perceives it as an outside invader threatening the body and attacks it.

Allergies are common. Several treatments can help you avoid your symptoms.

Symptoms of allergies

The symptoms you experience because of allergies are the result of several factors. These include the type of allergy you have and how severe the allergy is.

If you take any medication before an anticipated allergic response, you may still experience some of these symptoms, but they may be reduced.

For food allergies

Food allergies can trigger swelling, hives, nausea, fatigue, and more. It may take a while for a person to realize that they have a food allergy. If you have a serious reaction after a meal and you’re not sure why, see a medical professional immediately. They can find the exact cause of your reaction or refer you to a specialist.

For seasonal allergies

Hay fever symptoms can mimic those of a cold. They include congestion, runny nose, and swollen eyes. Most of the time, you can manage these symptoms at home using over-the-counter treatments. See your doctor if your symptoms become unmanageable.

For severe allergies

Severe allergies can cause anaphylaxis. This is a life-threatening emergency that can lead to breathing difficulties, lightheadedness, and loss of consciousness. If you’re experiencing these symptoms after coming in contact with a possible allergen, seek medical help immediately.

Everyone’s signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction are different

Allergies on skin

Skin allergies may be a sign or symptom of an allergy. They may also be the direct result of exposure to an allergen.

For example, eating a food you’re allergic to can cause several symptoms. You may experience tingling in your mouth and throat. You may also develop a rash.

Contact dermatitis, however, is the result of your skin coming into direct contact with an allergen. This could happen if you touch something you’re allergic to, such as a cleaning product or plant.

Types of skin allergies include:

  • Rashes. Areas of skin are irritated, red, or swollen, and can be painful or itchy.
  • Eczema. Patches of skin become inflamed and can itch and bleed.
  • Contact dermatitis. Red, itchy patches of skin develop almost immediately after contact with an allergen.
  • Sore throat. Pharynx or throat is irritated or inflamed.
  • Hives. Red, itchy, and raised welts of various sizes and shapes develop on the surface of the skin.
  • Swollen eyes. Eyes may be watery or itchy and look “puffy.”
  • Itching. There’s irritation or inflammation in the skin.
  • Burning. Skin inflammation leads to discomfort and stinging sensations on the skin.

Rashes are one of the most common symptoms of a skin allergy.

Causes of allergies

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why the immune system causes an allergic reaction when a normally harmless foreign substance enters the body.

Allergies have a genetic component. This means parents can pass them down to their children. However, only a general susceptibility to allergic reaction is genetic. Specific allergies aren’t passed down. For instance, if your mother is allergic to shellfish, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be, too.

Common types of allergens include:

  • Animal products. These include pet dander, dust mite waste, and cockroaches.
  • Drugs. Penicillin and sulfa drugs are common triggers.
  • Foods. Wheat, nuts, milk, shellfish, and egg allergies are common.
  • Insect stings. These include bees, wasps, and mosquitoes.
  • Mold. Airborne spores from mold can trigger a reaction.
  • Plants. Pollens from grass, weeds, and trees, as well as resin from plants such as poison ivy and poison oak, are very common plant allergens.
  • Other allergens. Latex, often found in latex gloves and condoms, and metals like nickel are also common allergens.

Seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever, are some of the most common allergies. These are caused by pollen released by plants. They cause:

  • itchy eyes
  • watery eyes
  • runny nose
  • coughing

Food allergies are becoming more common.

Allergy treatments

The best way to avoid allergies is to stay away from whatever triggers the reaction. If that’s not possible, there are treatment options available.


Allergy treatment often includes medications like antihistamines to control symptoms. The medication can be over the counter or prescription. What your doctor recommends depends on the severity of your allergies.

Allergy medications include:

  • antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • corticosteroids
  • cetirizine (Zyrtec)
  • loratadine (Claritin)
  • cromolyn sodium (Gastrocrom)
  • decongestants (Afrin, Suphedrine PE, Sudafed)
  • leukotriene modifiers (Singulair, Zyflo)

Singulair should only be prescribed if there are no other suitable treatment options. This is because it increases your risk of serious behavioral and mood changes, such as suicidal thoughts and actions.


Many people opt for immunotherapy. This involves several injections over the course of a few years to help the body get used to your allergy. Successful immunotherapy can prevent allergy symptoms from returning.

Emergency epinephrine

If you have a severe, life-threatening allergy, carry an emergency epinephrine shot. The shot counters allergic reactions until medical help arrives. Common brands of this treatment include EpiPen and Twinject.

Some allergic responses are a medical emergency.

Natural remedies for allergies

Many natural remedies and supplements are marketed as a treatment and even a way to prevent allergies. Discuss these with your doctor before trying them. Some natural treatments may actually contain other allergens and make your symptoms worse.

For example, some dried teas use flowers and plants that are closely related to plants that might be causing you serious sneezing. The same is true for essential oils. Some people use these oils to relieve common symptoms of allergies, but essential oils still contain ingredients that can cause allergies.

Each type of allergy has a host of natural remedies that may help speed up recovery. There are also natural options for children’s allergies, too.

How allergies are diagnosed

Your doctor can diagnose allergies in several ways.

First, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. They’ll ask about anything unusual you may have eaten recently and any substances you may have come in contact with. For example, if you have a rash on your hands, your doctor may ask if you put on latex gloves recently.

Lastly, a blood test and skin test can confirm or diagnose allergens your doctor suspects you have.

Allergy blood test

Your doctor may order a blood test. Your blood will be tested for the presence of allergy-causing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). These are cells that react to allergens. Your doctor will use a blood test to confirm a diagnosis if they’re worried about the potential for a severe allergic reaction.

Skin test

Your doctor may also refer you to an allergist for testing and treatment. A skin test is a common type of allergy test carried out by an allergist.

During this test, your skin is pricked or scratched with small needles containing potential allergens. Your skin’s reaction is documented. If you’re allergic to a particular substance, your skin will become red and inflamed.

Different tests may be needed to diagnose all your potential allergies.

Preventing symptoms

There’s no way to prevent allergies. But there are ways to prevent the symptoms from occurring. The best way to prevent allergy symptoms is to avoid the allergens that trigger them.

Avoidance is the most effective way to prevent food allergy symptoms. An elimination diet can help you determine the cause of your allergies so you know how to avoid them. To help you avoid food allergens, thoroughly read food labels and ask questions while dining out.

Preventing seasonal, contact, and other allergies comes down to knowing where the allergens are located and how to avoid them. If you’re allergic to dust, for example, you can help reduce symptoms by installing proper air filters in your home, getting your air ducts professionally cleaned, and dusting your home regularly.

Proper allergy testing can help you pinpoint your exact triggers, which makes them easier to avoid.

Complications of allergies

While you may think of allergies as those pesky sniffles and sneezes that come around every new season, some of these allergic reactions can actually be life-threatening.

Anaphylaxis, for example, is a serious reaction to the exposure of allergens. Most people associate anaphylaxis with food, but any allergen can cause the telltale signs:

  • suddenly narrowed airways
  • increased heart rate
  • possible swelling of the tongue and mouth

Allergy symptoms can create many complications. Your doctor can help determine the cause of your symptoms as well as the difference between a sensitivity and a full-blown allergy. Your doctor can also teach you how to manage your allergy symptoms so that you can avoid the worst complications.

Asthma and allergies

Asthma is a common respiratory condition. It makes breathing more difficult and can narrow the air passageways in your lungs.

Asthma is closely related to allergies. Indeed, allergies can make existing asthma worse. It can also trigger asthma in a person who’s never had the condition.

When these conditions occur together, it’s a condition called allergy-induced asthma, or allergic asthma. Allergic asthma affects about 60 percent of people who have asthma in the United States, estimates the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America.

Many people with allergies may develop asthma.

Allergies vs. cold

Runny nose, sneezing, and coughing are common symptoms of allergies. They also happen to be common symptoms of a cold and a sinus infection. Indeed, deciphering between the sometimes-generic symptoms can be difficult.

However, additional signs and symptoms of the conditions may help you distinguish between the three. For example, allergies can cause rashes on your skin and itchy eyes. The common cold can lead to body aches, even fever. A sinus infection typically produces thick, yellow discharge from your nose.

Allergies can impact your immune system for prolonged periods of time. When the immune system is compromised, it makes you more likely to pick up viruses you come into contact with. This includes the virus that causes the common cold.

In turn, having allergies actually increases your risk for having more colds.

Allergy cough

Hay fever can produce symptoms that include sneezing, coughing, and a persistent, stubborn cough. It’s the result of your body’s overreaction to allergens. It isn’t contagious, but it can be miserable.

Unlike a chronic cough, a cough caused by allergies and hay fever is temporary. You may only experience the symptoms of this seasonal allergy during specific times of the year, when plants are first blooming.

Additionally, seasonal allergies can trigger asthma, and asthma can cause coughing. When a person with common seasonal allergies is exposed to an allergen, tightening airways can lead to a cough. Shortness of breath and chest tightening may also occur.

Allergies and bronchitis

Viruses or bacteria can cause bronchitis, or it can be the result of allergies. The first type, acute bronchitis, typically ends after several days or weeks. Chronic bronchitis, however, can linger for months, possibly longer. It may also return frequently.

Exposure to common allergens is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis. These allergens include:

  • cigarette smoke
  • air pollution
  • dust
  • pollen
  • chemical fumes

Unlike seasonal allergies, many of these allergens linger in environments like houses or offices. That can make chronic bronchitis more persistent and more likely to return.

A cough is the only common symptom between chronic and acute bronchitis. Learn the other symptoms of bronchitis so you can understand more clearly what you may have.

Allergies and babies

Skin allergies are more common in younger children today than they were just a few decades ago. However, skin allergies decrease as children grow older. Respiratory and food allergies become more common as children get older.

Common skin allergies on babies include:

  • Eczema. This is an inflammatory skin condition that causes red rashes that itch. These rashes may develop slowly but be persistent.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis. This type of skin allergy appears quickly, often immediately after your baby comes into contact with the irritant. More serious contact dermatitis can develop into painful blisters and cause skin cracking.
  • Hives. Hives are red bumps or raised areas of skin that develop after exposure to an allergen. They don’t become scaly and crack, but itching the hives may make the skin bleed.

Unusual rashes or hives on your baby’s body may alarm you. Understanding the difference in the type of skin allergies babies commonly experience can help you find a better treatment.

Living with allergies

Allergies are common and don’t have life-threatening consequences for most people. People who are at risk of anaphylaxis can learn how to manage their allergies and what to do in an emergency situation.

Most allergies are manageable with avoidance, medications, and lifestyle changes. Working with your doctor or allergist can help reduce any major complications and make life more enjoyable.

Sulfa Allergies vs. Sulfite Allergies

Allergies to sulfonamides, also known as sulfa drugs, are common.

Sulfa drugs were the first successful treatment against bacterial infections in the 1930s. They’re still used today in antibiotics and other medications, like diuretics and anticonvulsants. People with HIV are at particular risk for sulfa sensitivity.

Because their names are similar, people often confuse sulfa with sulfites. Sulfites occur naturally in most wines. They’re also used as a preservative in other foods. Sulfites and sulfa medications are chemically unrelated, but they can both cause allergic reactions in people

Sulfa allergy

Symptoms of an allergic reaction to sulfa include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face, mouth, tongue, and throat
  • drop in blood pressure
  • anaphylaxis (a severe, life threatening reaction that requires immediate medical attention)

Rarely, cases of serum sickness-like reactions can occur around 10 days after a sulfa drug treatment begins. Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • skin eruptions
  • hives
  • drug-induced arthritis
  • swollen lymph nodes

You should contact a doctor immediately if you have these symptoms.

Medications to avoid

Avoid the following medications if you’re allergic or have a sensitivity to sulfa:

  • antibiotic combination drugs such as trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Septra, Bactrim) and erythromycin-sulfisoxazole (Eryzole, Pediazole)
  • sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), which is used for Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • dapsone (Aczone), which is used to treat Hansen’s disease (leprosy), dermatitis, and certain types of pneumonia

Safe medications for people with sulfa allergies

Not all drugs that contain sulfonamides cause reactions in all people. Many people with sulfa allergies and sensitivities may be able to safely take the following medications but should do so with caution:

  • some diabetes medications, including glyburide (Glynase, Diabeta) and glimepiride (Amaryl)
  • migraine medication sumatriptan (Imitrex, Sumavel, and Dosepro)
  • some diuretics, including hydrochlorothiazide (Microzide) and furosemide (Lasix)

The ability to take these medications can vary from person to person. If you have a sulfa allergy and are unsure if you should take any of these medications, talk with your doctor.

Sulfite allergy

Symptoms of an allergic reaction to sulfites include:

  • headache
  • rash
  • hives
  • swelling of the mouth and lips
  • wheezing or trouble breathing
  • asthma attack (in people with asthma)
  • anaphylaxis

If you experience more serious symptoms of a sulfite allergy, contact your doctor. Anaphylaxis requires emergency medical attention.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, people with asthma have between a 1 in 20 and 1 in 100 chance of having a reaction to sulfites.

Sulfites are common in processed foods, condiments, and alcoholic beverages, such as red and white wine. Sulfites occur naturally in wine during fermentation, and many winemakers add them to help the process along.

For the past two decades, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required winemakers to display the warning “contains sulfites” if levels exceed a certain threshold. Many companies voluntarily add the label to their products as well.

If you have sensitivities, you should avoid food products with the following chemicals on the label:

  • sulfur dioxide
  • potassium bisulfate
  • potassium metabisulfite
  • sodium bisulfite
  • sodium metabisulfite
  • sodium sulfite

Work with your doctor

Work with your doctor to determine the best course of action if you suspect you have a sulfa or sulfite allergy. You may need to see a specialist or undergo further testing. Be sure to talk to your doctor about which medications and products to avoid, especially if you have asthma.

Everything You Should Know If You’re Considering Allergy Shots

Allergen immunotherapy consists of a series of treatments aimed at providing long-term relief from severe allergies.

It’s also known as:

  • allergy immunotherapy
  • subcutaneous immunotherapy
  • allergy shots

You might consider allergy shots if you have severe allergy symptoms that interfere with your daily life, even after you’ve made changes to your immediate environment.

These shots may be used to treat allergies caused by:

  • dust mites
  • feathers
  • mold spores
  • pet dander, such as the kind from a cat or dog
  • pollen
  • stinging insects

When taken in the recommended sequence, allergy shots can provide significant symptom relief. At the same time, this treatment option requires a long-term commitment to work effectively.

Who’s a good candidate for allergy shots?

This treatment method requires frequent injections at the doctor’s office. You need to be able to commit time to it.

Allergy shots may be used by people who have:

  • allergic asthma
  • allergic rhinitis
  • eye allergies, or allergic conjunctivitis
  • allergies to insects, particularly bees and other stinging insects

Allergy shots tend to work best for people who are sensitive to insect venoms and inhaled allergens.

You may also be a good candidate if you experience severe allergy symptoms year-round and you don’t want to take medications over a long period of time.

Who shouldn’t take allergy shots?

Allergy shots are only used in people who are at least 5 years old. That’s because children younger than 5 years old may not be able to fully communicate about potential side effects and discomfort that would warrant stopping treatment.

Allergy shots also aren’t recommended if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have heart disease
  • have severe asthma

Who’s a good candidate for allergy shots?

This treatment method requires frequent injections at the doctor’s office. You need to be able to commit time to it.

Allergy shots may be used by people who have:

  • allergic asthma
  • allergic rhinitis
  • eye allergies, or allergic conjunctivitis
  • allergies to insects, particularly bees and other stinging insects

Allergy shots tend to work best for people who are sensitive to insect venoms and inhaled allergens.

You may also be a good candidate if you experience severe allergy symptoms year-round and you don’t want to take medications over a long period of time.

Who shouldn’t take allergy shots?

Allergy shots are only used in people who are at least 5 years old. That’s because children younger than 5 years old may not be able to fully communicate about potential side effects and discomfort that would warrant stopping treatment.

Allergy shots also aren’t recommended if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have heart disease
  • have severe asthma

How do allergy shots work?

Allergy shots work by decreasing symptoms from particular allergens.

Each injection contains small amounts of the allergen so that your body builds up immunity to it over time. The process works much like taking a vaccine, where your body creates new antibodies to combat the invasive substances.

Allergy shots also improve the way other immune system cells and substances function in response to allergens. Eventually, successful immunotherapy helps the body fight off allergens and reduce adverse symptoms.

Allergy shots aim to decrease overall allergy symptoms over time. If you have allergic asthma, reduced asthma symptoms are also possible.

How do you prepare for an allergy shot?

Before you start allergy shots, you’ll need a full evaluation. The doctor needs to test your allergies to know exactly which substances to use in the shots.

For example, if you have allergies during pollen season, they’ll test for which types of pollen cause your symptoms. Ragweed, grasses, and various tree pollens are common culprits.

Allergy testing usually consists of skin pricking. During a skin prick test, your doctor will prick the skin on your back or forearm with several types of allergens to determine which ones cause reactions.

A type of specialist known as an allergist or an immunologist will conduct all testing and treatment with allergy shots.

What’s the procedure for an allergy shot?

Once your doctor has identified your allergens, you’ll start receiving allergy shots. The process is broken down into two phases:

  • buildup
  • maintenance


The buildup phase requires the largest time commitment. You receive injections up to twice per week to help your body get used to the allergens.

You’ll need to stay at your doctor’s office for 30 minutes after each injection so they can monitor any side effects and reactions.

The buildup phase typically lasts 3 to 6 months.


The maintenance phase consists of shots administered once or twice per month.

You enter the maintenance phase once your doctor determines that your body has grown accustomed to the injections. They base this decision on your reaction to the shots.

The maintenance phase typically lasts between 3 and 5 years. It’s important that you don’t skip any of your injections, if possible. Doing so can disrupt your treatment course.

During this phase, you’ll also need to stay at your doctor’s office for 30 minutes post-injection so that they can monitor your reaction.

Are allergy shots effective?

Allergy shots can provide long-term relief well after the injections have stopped.

Some people who have received allergy shots may no longer need medication for their allergies.

However, it can take up to 1 year of maintenance shots before you see results. Some people may notice benefits early on in the maintenance phase, though.

In some cases, allergy shots don’t work. This may be due to a variety of reasons, including:

  • stopping treatment due to reactions
  • continued exposure to allergens at extremely high levels
  • not enough allergen in the actual shots
  • missed allergens during your initial evaluation

What are the side effects of allergy shots?

Common side effects include reactions that look like hives or mosquito bites at the site of the injection. The area can also swell to a larger bump and increase in redness.

This type of reaction is normal. It can happen immediately or several hours after the injection.

It can last for several hours before going away without any treatment. You can help reduce swelling by applying ice to the injection site.

Some people experience mild allergy symptoms — including nasal congestion, sneezing, and itchy skin — after their shots. This is a reaction to the allergens being injected. Taking an antihistamine can help ease these symptoms.

Rare side effects

In rare cases, allergy shots may cause a severe reaction, including:

  • hives
  • swelling
  • anaphylaxis

If you go into anaphylactic shock, you may experience dizziness and breathing difficulties.

This reaction can develop within 30 minutes of receiving an allergy shot. This is why your doctor will likely ask you to stay at the office after the injection so that they can monitor you.

When you’re feeling sick

If you’re sick, let your doctor know. You may need to skip an injection until you’ve recovered.

Taking an allergy shot while you have a respiratory illness, for example, could increase your risk for side effects.

How much do allergy shots cost?

Health insurance typically covers allergy shots. You may have to pay a copay for each visit. Copays are usually nominal fees.

If you don’t have health insurance, have a high deductible, or if allergy shots aren’t covered under your plan, you may end up spending thousands of dollars a year.

One large 2019 study looked at the costs of allergy shots for people with commercial insurance or Medicare Advantage with Part D. Researchers examined data gathered between 2013 and 2015.

  • The cost of allergy shots for 131,493 people totaled $253,301,575. This averages out to around $1,926 per person.
  • People with allergies covered about 19 percent of the total costs, while insurers covered about 81 percent.
  • On average, treatment lasted 463.1 days (or around 15 months).

Before beginning any treatment, talk with your doctor about payment options and costs.

Keep in mind that allergy shots are a long-term commitment. They require many injections, so you’ll want to plan accordingly if you’re paying out of pocket.

Also consider that, over time, allergy shots could save you money on sick visits and over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications.

What’s the outlook?

Speak with your doctor about the requirements for allergy shots and whether shots are a good option for you.

Many people respond well to allergy shots, and they can provide a source of freedom from severe allergies. It may take a while for you to see results, though.

If you don’t see any improvements after 1 year, you may need to talk to your allergist about other options for allergy control.

If you have food allergies, speak with your doctor about ways you can avoid the foods you’re allergic to. Allergy shots aren’t effective against food allergies.








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