How Long Is Allergy Season
Allergies are a big problem for many people across North America. According to an estimate by the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), about 30 percent of Americans suffer from allergies, with more than 3 million having asthma. The ACAAI estimates that over $17 billion is spent annually on medications used to treat allergies.
If you’re one of those suffering from allergies, be sure to check out the next page for some tips on how best to deal with your symptoms.
Why Are People Allergic?
In order to understand why we get allergic reactions, it’s helpful to consider what happens when our immune system mistakes something harmless or beneficial as harmful. Our bodies have evolved a defense mechanism called hypersensitivity, which causes us to react strongly to substances that aren’t supposed to hurt us. In other words, when we encounter something our body considers dangerous, it releases powerful chemicals like histamine that cause inflammation throughout our systems. This reaction can trigger sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, coughing and trouble breathing. It also leads to itching and burning sensations on affected areas. When this occurs repeatedly, such as during hay fever season, it can lead to long-term health problems like sinus infections, ear infections and respiratory issues.
The most common type of allergy is known as seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever). Dr. Lang explains that “allergic rhinitis is caused by swelling of the mucous membranes lining the nasal passages, causing them to become irritated and inflamed.” He adds that there are two types of hay fever: chronic and episodic. Chronic hay fever affects up to 20 percent of U.S. adults, while episodic hay fever affects about 10 percent of the population [sources: CDC; Leffler].
What Causes Allergies?
It may seem obvious, but it’s important to note that all allergies originate within the human body. As Dr. Lang points out, allergies are not contagious diseases transmitted by others. However, the environment around us plays a large role in triggering these conditions.
“Most environmental factors trigger allergic responses because they produce molecules that mimic natural airborne allergens,” he says. “These include things like cigarette smoke, secondhand smoke, air pollution, dust, pet dander, cockroaches and mold spores.”
Dr. Lang notes that indoor exposure to allergens is especially problematic for sufferers of allergies. “Indoor environments provide ideal environments for molds and fungi, cockroaches, mice droppings, bird feathers, bedding fibers, carpet fiber, drywall dust, chemical pollutants, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and odors,” he says. “Many of these exposures are unavoidable and difficult if not impossible to control.”
There are three main triggers of allergic reactions:
1) Sensitivity to certain proteins/molecules found in plants, animals or fungi. These compounds are referred to as allergens. Allergens come in different shapes and sizes and are often derived from food sources. Examples of common allergens include pollens, animal hair and skin, foods containing peanuts, shellfish and insect venom. Dr. Lang says that although some people are genetically predisposed to allergies, environmental factors are responsible for 90 to 95 percent of cases.
2) Exposure to irritants like fumes, particles, gases, synthetic fragrances and even sunlight. Irritants don’t directly affect our cells, but instead trigger allergic reactions when inhaled into our lungs where their molecular structures resemble typical allergens. For example, diesel engine exhaust contains tiny particles that act similar to pollens and therefore lead to irritation and inflammation.
3) Infections like colds, flu and bacterial infections. Dr. Lang says that viral upper respiratory infections may play a role in worsening allergies, but research has yet to support this theory.
Is There A Cure For Allergies?
Some researchers believe that the key to preventing allergies lies in prevention. “Prevention is better than cure,” says Dr. Lang. “Studies show that children who grow up in homes without pets and exposed to fewer indoor allergens have less allergy related illnesses later on.”
Although the exact reasons behind this phenomenon aren’t clear, experts suspect that exposure to allergens may change how the developing immune system functions. Studies on rats suggest that exposure to allergens before birth could alter gene expression patterns and prevent allergic sensitization later in life.
As far as treating existing allergies, Dr. Lang suggests using topical antihistamines to relieve itching and discomfort. Over-the-counter treatments including decongestants, antiinflammatory drugs and corticosteroids are available but should only be taken under medical supervision. If you’re experiencing severe side effects, you may need immediate medical attention.
For patients who suffer from chronic allergies, immunotherapy is sometimes recommended as part of treatment. This therapy involves injections of small amounts of specific allergens that induce tolerance to them. Some studies have shown that immunotherapy reduces the number of days missed from work due to illness, improves quality of sleep and relieves daytime tiredness.
Despite improvements, allergies remain very complex diseases requiring a multi-faceted approach for optimal management. Dr. Lang stresses that no single strategy works for everyone, so taking a holistic approach that includes diet, stress reduction techniques and exercise is important.
Learn more about allergies by visiting the links on the following page.
While it isn’t technically an allergy, eczema deserves mention here. Eczema is a condition characterized by red, scaly patches of skin that itch and burn. Many people think that allergies cause eczema, but recent evidence indicates that it actually results from an imbalance between oils produced by good bacteria (called probiotics) and bad bacteria living on our skin. By replenishing the amount of healthy bacteria on your skin, you might find relief from eczema-like rashes.
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