WHAT IS ALLERGOLOGY?

Allergology is the study of allergies, the physician who is specially trained to diagnose, treat and manage allergies, asthma and disorders pertaining to the immunity system is known as an allergist or immunologist. They study and treat conditions ranging from the very common to the very rare. Some allergy problems particularly with mild cases may not need any treatment, because sometimes allergies can be controlled with the occasional use of an over-the-counter medication. However, sometimes allergies can interfere with day-to-day activities or decrease the quality of life. Allergies can even be life threatening.

WHAT IS AN ALLERGY?

The human body is efficient in that it can defend itself against harmful invaders such as viruses or bacteria, but sometimes the defenses are too aggresive and harmless substances such as dust, molds, or pollen are mistakenly identified as dangerous. The immune system then puts up its defenses, which include several chemicals to attack and destroy the supposed enemy. In the process, some unpleasant and, in extreme cases, life-threatening symptoms may be experienced by the allergy-prone individual.

WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF ALLERGIC REATIONS?

There are thousands of ordinary substances that can trigger an allergic reaction.

The ones that most common are:

  • Plant pollens
  • Molds
  • Household dust
  • Cockroaches
  • Pets
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Foods
  • Medicines
  • Feathers
  • Insect stings

These triggers are called "allergens."

WHO DOES IT AFFECT?

Asthma and allergies can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race or socioeconomic factors. Allergies can occur for the first time at any age, yet it is true that allergies and asthma are more common in children. Sometimes allergy symptoms start in childhood, disappear for many years and then start up again during adult life.

Although the exact genetic factors are not yet understood, there is a hereditary tendency to asthma and allergies. In susceptible people, factors such as hormones, stress, smoke, perfume or other environmental irritants may also play a role.

TYPES OF ALLERGY PROBLEMS

While an allergic reaction may occur anywhere in the body symptoms usually appear in the nose, eyes, lungs, lining of the stomach, sinuses, throat and skin. These are places where special immune system cells are stationed to fight off invaders that are inhaled, swallowed or come in contact with the skin.

Allergic Rhinitis (Hay Fever)

  • This is a general term used to describe the allergic reactions that take place in the nose. Symptoms may include sneezing, congestion, runny nose, and itching of the nose, the eyes and/or the roof of the mouth. When this problem is triggered by pollens or outdoor molds, during the Spring, Summer or Fall, the condition is often called "hay fever." When the problem is year-round, it might be caused by exposure to house dust, household pets, indoor molds or allergens at school or in the workplace.

Asthma

  • Symptoms relating to Asthma may be occur due to airway muscle spasms blocking the flow of air to the lungs and/or the linings of the bronchial tubes causing them to become inflamed. This may clog the airways due to excess mucus. An asthma attack is characterized by labored or restricted breathing, a tight feel in the chest, coughing and/or wheezing. Sometimes a chronic cough is the only symptom. Asthma trouble can cause only mild discomfort or it can cause life-threatening attacks in which breathing stops altogether.

Contact Dermatitis/Skin Allergies

  • Contact dermatitis, eczema and hives are skin conditions that can be caused by allergens and other irritants. Often the reaction may take hours or days to develop, as in the case of poison ivy. The most common allergic causes of rashes are medicines, insect stings, foods, animals and chemicals used at home or work. Allergies may be aggravated by emotional stress.

Anaphylaxis

  • This is a rare, yet potentially fatal allergic reaction that affects many parts of the body at the same time. The trigger may be an insect sting, a food (such as peanuts) or a medication. Frequently the occurences of these symptoms start without warning and get worse rapidly. At the first sign of an anaphylactic reaction, the affected person must go immediately to the closest Emergency Room or call for an Ambulance.
  • Symptoms may include:
    • Vomiting or diarrhea
    • A dangerous drop in blood pressure
    • Redness of the skin and/or hives
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Swelling of the throat and/or tongue
    • Loss of consciousness

WHEN TO SEE AN ALLERGIST

You should see an allergist if:

  • Your allergies are causing symptoms such as chronic sinus infections, nasal congestion or difficulty breathing
  • You experience hay fever or other allergy symptoms several months out of the year
  • Antihistamines and over-the-counter medications do not control your allergy symptoms or create unacceptable side effects, such as drowsiness
  • Your asthma or allergies are interfering with your ability to carry on day-to-day activities
  • Your asthma or allergies decrease the quality of your life

You are experiencing warning signs of serious asthma such as:

  • You sometimes have to struggle to catch your breath
  • You often wheeze or cough, especially at night or after exercise
  • You are frequently short of breath or feel tightness in your chest
  • You have previously been diagnosed with asthma, and you have frequent asthma attacks even though you are taking asthma medication

WHAT CAN I EXPECT?

A visit to the allergist might include:

  • Allergy testing - The allergist will usually perform tests to determine what allergens are involved
  • Prevention education - The most affective approach to treating asthma or allergies is to avoid the factors that trigger the condition in the first place. Even when it is not possible to completely avoid allergens, an allergist can help you decrease exposure to allergens
  • Medication prescriptions - A number of new and effective medications are available to treat both asthma and allergies
  • Immunotherapy (Allergy Shots) - This treatment gives a patient injections every week or two for some or all of the allergens that cause their allergy problems. Gradually the injections get stronger and stronger. In most cases, the allergy problems get less and less over time.