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Glossary of Allergy Terms

Originally Published 2006
Reprinted with the permission of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Q. What are allergies?
A. Allergies reflect 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. Allergies are not only bothersome, but many 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 and patient education, allergic diseases can be controlled, and people with allergies can lead normal and productive lives.

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Q. How can I find out what is causing my allergies?
A.Your family physician or an allergist can help you determine what causes your allergies by looking at your medical history, giving you a physical exam and testing for sensitivity to specific allergens. There are typically three types of tests: the skin prick test, blood tests and the elimination diet.

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Q. What’s the best place for people with allergies or asthma to live?
A. Although people can have allergies or asthma anywhere, there are some areas where allergens (allergy triggers) tend to be more prevalent. You might see some improvement in your symptoms if pollens and molds in the new place are different than those you left behind. However, it’s not uncommon for people to develop sensitivities in a new location to local allergens within a year or two. Only in rare cases should people move because of their allergies or asthma. Bottom line: no place is allergy-free! The good news? Effective control measures can significantly reduce your exposure to known triggers in any environment.

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Q. How can I tell the difference between a cold and an allergy?
A. You can tell the difference from a cold and an allergy from your symptoms. Not everyone may be able to tell without a doctor’s diagnosis. In any case, here are some clues. With an allergy you do not have a fever and muscle aches, but with a cold you might. Allergies last week or months, while colds last 7 to 10 days. Nasal discharges caused by allergies are clear, thin and watery, while a cold it starts off clear but changes to thick, yellow/green. With allergies you may have itching in the ear, nose and throat, while rarely with colds. Sneezing spells are common with allergies and not often with colds. Allergies occur during different seasons depending on what you are allergic to, while colds mostly occur during the fall and winter.

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Q. Do I need to see a doctor if I suspect I have allergies?
A. Allergies are a serious condition and should be treated seriously. Untreated allergies can lead to more serious conditions like sinusitis and asthma. A doctor can help you determine what is causing your allergies. This is important so you can learn to avoid the substances that trigger your allergic reaction. Your doctor can also provide you with tips on how to avoid the allergen and prescribe medications that can help ease your symptoms when the allergen can’t be avoided.

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Q. Can I outgrow my allergies?
A. Many people wonder whether or not they will outgrow their allergies. Although allergic asthma may spontaneously improve, particularly during adolescence, it may also worsen or reoccur later in life. It is no longer thought that people outgrow these diseases. The diseases sometimes can become dormant and you may be free of symptoms. Still, allergic disease can return or even have its initial onset later in life. Despite this, there is a tendency for many allergies to become less severe in people after age 40 and more severe after age 60.

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Q. Should I get allergy shots?
A. When medications aren’t helping and you’re having a hard time avoiding your allergens, it might be time to consider allergen immunotherapy, or ‘allergy shots.’ With immunotherapy treatment, you receive increasingly higher doses of your allergens over time, gradually becoming less sensitive to them. Allergy shots have been proven effective for symptoms caused by grass, tree and weed pollens, dust mites, cat dander, certain molds and stinging insects. To date, allergen immunotherapy is the only treatment that has the potential to provide long?term prevention of allergic asthma or rhinitis symptoms. Allergy shots may have a lasting effect after they are stopped, whereas medications do not.

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Q. Is ragweed allergy the same as hay fever?
A. Hay fever is a general term used to describe what we doctors call ‘seasonal allergic rhinitis.’ Many plants cause allergic rhinitis symptoms. Ragweed is one of the chief culprits since it is a prevalent weed in most parts of North America. If you are allergic to ragweed, your symptoms will appear in late summer or early fall when ragweed plants pollinate. You may experience itchy eyes, a runny nose and sneezing. People with greater sensitivity may have wheezing, coughing, sinus headaches or asthma attacks. Allergy testing will give you a definite diagnosis. Prescription antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and allergy shots can reduce or eliminate your symptoms.
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Q. What is a food allergy?
A. People with food allergies have immune systems that react to harmless substances found in food and drink. These substances are called allergens. When people have an allergy, there are antibodies to the allergens in their blood and throughout their body. When that person eats a food to which they are allergic, the food allergens react to antibodies on cells releasing chemicals. Any food can cause an allergic reaction, but only eight foods cause nine out of ten reactions. In infants and young children milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are most common, while adults are more likely to be allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish.

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Q. How can I tell if my infant has food allergies?
A. If you suspect your baby is allergic to any food, your best approach is to discuss his or her symptoms with your pediatrician. Common allergy symptoms in babies include hives, colic, wheezing, or red and itchy scaly patches on the skin (eczema). Keep a log of what foods cause a reaction in your child and how soon symptoms appear. Share this information, along with your family’s history of asthma or allergies with your health care provider, If you and your spouse have allergies, your child has about a 75 percent chance of having allergies. If one of you is allergic, or if relatives on one side of your family have allergies, then your child has about a 50 percent chance of developing them. Sometimes blood tests and allergy testing are done to help make a diagnosis. Your pediatrician may refer you to an allergist for specialized testing or treatment.

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