What do you think of when you hear the word ‘allergy’?
Allergies are basically symptoms of the immune system reacting to harmless substances as though they were disease-causing germs.
Everyone is familiar with hay fever – the sniffly nose, itchy eyes, sneezing and coughing symptoms that some people experience when they inhale certain types of pollen. Hay Fever remedies are so well advertised that a person would practically have to have lived under a rock for the past 100 years to not recognize hay fever symptoms, even if they never experienced them themselves.
Fans of medical dramas and ‘police procedural’ T.V. series are also familiar with the another type of allergic reaction: anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock is the sudden, dramatic swelling of the breathing passages in response to contact some substance. People in anaphylactic shock must receive medical treatment right away or he/she will suffocate to death. In fact, some allergists (doctors who specialize in treating allergies) don’t consider a reaction to be allergic unless the victim experiences anaphylactic shock from contact with the offending item – anything other unpleasant immune reaction is ‘just a sensitivity’.
For simplicity’s sake, both sensitivities and allergies will be called ‘allergies’ for the remainder of this article.
Whether you choose to call them allergies or sensitivities, these immune reactions can cause a wide variety of symptoms beyond the familiar hay fever:
• Broken capillaries/spider veins/ ‘port wine stains’
• Belly aches
• Racing heart
• Racing pulse
• Swelling on the face or extremities (or at the point of contact)
• Water retention (edema/dropsy)
• Feeling of pressure – especially in the head or chest
• Memory problems
• ‘Spaced out feeling’
• Difficulty concentrating
• Weepyness/Depression (for no apparent reason)
• Even violent behavior!
(Note: It is thought that the cognitive/emotional/behavioral allergic symptoms are the result of inflammation in the brain.)
There are other possible causes for all of the above symptoms, but if you or someone you know is/are experiencing these symptoms on a regular basis it might be worth investigating whether an allergy is behind it.
Your regular health care provider might be able to help you with this, but many doctors are not trained to think about immune reactions as a cause of the problems listed above problems (except for eczema – which is usually an immune system reaction.)
An allergist or (sometimes) another medical doctor can order tests to help detect allergens. Though these medical tests can be very useful –especially for contact allergies (allergic reactions to substances that contacted the skin) and severe allergies with life threatening symptoms, they have their limitations. (See article)Also, allergy testing is expensive and many insurance companies won’t cover an allergist’s services for anything but life-threatening allergies. This is why elimination regimes are generally recommended for milder allergic reactions.
The most effective way to determine food allergies is to use an elimination diet. In an elimination diet, a person eliminates a list of common or suspected allergens from his/her diet for a period of time until their allergic symptoms subside, and then systematically adds them back into the diet, one by one to see which foods caused the symptoms (see article for details)
Contact allergies, and airborne allergens often can be found by thoroughly cleaning affected person’s close environment and eliminating common allergens from the area.
Though people can be allergic to almost anything, here is a short list of common allergies:
Mold and Mildew spores
Pollen (usually only a few types of pollen per person, but the list of possibilities is too long for this article)
Soap ingredients (usually not the soap itself, but fragrances, or various other enhancers)
Laundry detergent ingredients (see note on soap above)
Shellfish (includes clams, mussels oysters, shrimp, crab lobster, etc.)
Metals (in contact with skin)
Keep in mind that some allergies are slow to develop, and slow to recede after the allergen has been eliminated. Also, bodies change over time, so people “grow into and grow out of allergies”.
Once you have discovered the allergen, it is usually best to avoid the allergen as much as possible. If a person has many relatively mild food allergies, often using a rotation diet can ensure that a person gets adequate nutrition while keeping allergies under control.
If a person has more severe allergies and/or the allergen is hard to avoid, he or she may consider whether immune therapy is appropriate. Immune therapy is administered by a qualified health care specialist and involves administering an extract of the allergen (by injection or by sublingual drops or pills that are held under the tongue until absorbed.) These treatments are given in a series of doses – several per year over a period of years. Some people find substantial relief using immune therapy for their allergies. However, immune therapy for allergies tends to work best in young people or newly developed allergies. It is also usually expensive and few insurance plans pay for these treatments unless an allergy is very severe.
Whatever the outcome, discovering the identity of allergens can give people a greater control of their symptoms and a greater control of their life.