What Are Allergies?

Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to substances that usually cause no reaction in most individuals. These substances can trigger sneezing, wheezing, coughing and itching. Some allergies have been linked to a variety of common and serious chronic respiratory illnesses (such as sinusitis and asthma). Additionally, allergic reactions can be severe and even fatal. However, with proper management, allergies can be controlled, allowing their sufferers to lead normal, productive lives.

Common Allergies

  • Allergic rhinitis (hay fever or "indoor/outdoor," "seasonal," "perennial" or "nasal" allergies) includes these symptoms: nasal stuffiness, sneezing, clear discharge, and itching of the roof of the mouth and/or ears in addition to the nose.

  • Asthma symptoms triggered by an allergic reaction include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or rapid breathing, chest tightness, occasional fatigue and slight chest pain.

  • Food allergies are most prevalent in very young children and frequently outgrown. Symptoms may include itching or swelling of lips or tongue; tightness of the throat accompanied by hoarseness; nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; occasionally chest tightness and wheezing; itching of the eyes; decreased blood pressure or loss of consciousness and anaphylaxis.

    Anaphylaxis is an extreme response to an allergy that is a medical emergency requiring immediate attention. Symptoms include generalized warmth or flush; tingling of palms, soles of feet or lips; light-headedness; bloating and chest tightness. These symptoms can progress into seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, shock and respiratory distress. Possible causes: medications, vaccines, food, latex, and insect stings and bites.

  • Drug allergies can cause anaphylaxis; even those who do not have life-threatening symptoms initially may progress to a life-threatening reaction.

  • Latex allergies represent a response to the proteins in natural, latex rubber. People at risk include healthcare workers, patients having multiple surgeries and rubber-industry workers. Symptoms include hand dermatitis, eczema and hives; sneezing and other respiratory distress; and lower respiratory problems including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
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  • Insect Sting/Bite allergy symptoms include pain, itching and swelling at the sting site or over a larger area and can cause anaphylaxis. Insects to be aware of include bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, and fire and harvest ants.

  • Urticaria (hives, skin allergy) is characterized by the development of itchy, raised white bumps on the skin surrounded by an area of red inflammation. Acute urticaria is often caused by an allergy to foods or medication.

  • Atopic Dermatitis (eczema, skin allergy) is a chronic or recurrent inflammatory skin disease characterized by lesions, scaling and flaking; it is sometimes called eczema. In children, it may be aggravated by an allergy or irritant.

  • Contact Dermatitis (skin allergy), characterized by skin inflammation, is one of the most common skin diseases in adults. It results from direct skin contact with an outside substance. There are currently about 3,000 known contact allergens.

  • Allergic Conjunctivitis (eye allergy) is characterized by itchy, watery eyes and lid distress. It is common among those who suffer from other allergies such as atopic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis and asthma.