It’s that time of year when plant pollen and air-borne dust particles clog the sinuses and sometimes bring on an allergic reaction. More than 50 million people living in the United States have some kind of allergy.
But what are allergies, what causes them, and what can be done to ease the discomfort of this common condition?
What is an Allergy?
An allergy is a hypersensitive reaction to foreign substances that don’t bother other people. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Your immune system produces substances known as antibodies. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as harmful, even though it isn’t.”
Red, watering eyes accompanied by sneezing, a runny nose, swelling – even shortness of breath – signal an allergic reaction.
Allergies are diagnosed by doctors who use skin and blood tests. Skin tests produce results faster and generally cost less than allergy blood tests.
What Causes an Allergy?
Anything that triggers an allergic reaction is called an allergen. The most common allergens, as already indicated here, are pollen and some foods. Insect bites and stings are also powerful allergens, along with some medications and even latex. MedlinePlus attributes most allergic reactions to:
• Dust mites
• Mold spores
• Pet dander
• Insect stings
Personal genetic history and environment influence whether or not you will have allergies, and how severe they are. The body’s immune system controls allergic reactions.
Immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE) bind to an allergen “and then to a receptor on mast cells or basophils where it triggers the release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine.”
In plain English, an allergic reaction is a “false alarm” to the body’s defense (immune) system.
Some allergic reactions are minor, while others are quite severe. Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction that can be life-threatening. It has these signs and symptoms:
• Loss of consciousness
• A drop in blood pressure
• Severe shortness of breath
• Skin rash
• A rapid, weak pulse
• Nausea and vomiting
If you see someone having a severe allergic reaction, do not delay: CALL 911! People with known allergies often have some type of epinephrine auto-injector (like Auvi-Q or EpiPen) at the ready. If so, find it and administer the needed anti-histamines until professional help arrives.
How Can Allergies be Helped?
There was a time in American history when parents thought they could protect their offspring from developing allergies by shielding them from all potential allergens. Unfortunately, these many potentially provocative substances include dust and dirt which are found everywhere – indoors and outdoors.
Taken to the extreme, kids were forced inside clear plastic “hamster balls” to shield them from exposure to allergens. Popular magazines loved to snap photos of these happy, “healthy” youngsters rolling themselves around the house and yard. Unfortunately, those children’s immune systems never had a chance to build resistances and tolerances to the common causes of many allergies and contracted diseases of the immune system, including allergies.
Now, we know that exposing children to allergens actually builds up the immune system. Parents magazine confirms that modern scientific thinking is the exact opposite of what it was a mere ten years ago:
“The best way to prevent food allergies, according to a new report by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAAI) is to expose babies to more foods early, rather than delaying them.”
That’s right: early exposure to all kinds of food can actually prevent allergies as a child grows older. Off the prohibited foods list for 1-year-olds came milk, eggs for 2-year-olds, and peanuts (actually a legume), nuts from trees, fish, and shellfish for 3-year-olds.
If you like statistics, here are two interesting ones:
About five percent of preschool children in the US have been diagnosed with some type of food allergy. 90 percent of all allergic reactions in the country are due to the consumption of milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, soy, and wheat.
Although it is impossible to get rid of all the allergens inside your home to create an “allergy-free zone,” there are many things you can do to reduce these unwanted agents:
Fight dust mites by switching from feathered bedding to synthetic fabrics. Wash all bedding in hot water once a week to kill the little buggers. Encase the box spring, mattress and pillows with allergen-proof liners.
You can also use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in your vacuum cleaner to reduce allergens in the carpet. A solution of one part hydrogen peroxide to five parts water will clean the back of your carpets very effectively. Sun drying is preferable to using a fan, when possible.
Keep mold at bay in the wet places in your house – bathrooms, kitchens, and basements – by wiping down wet surfaces with a towel. Spray undiluted vinegar on damp basement walls and allow to air dry. Or apply and let sit for 30 minutes a combination of two cups of vinegar, two cups of very hot water, half-cup of salt and two cups of Borax. Apply a second time, scrubbing with a soft-bristled brush, and rinse well with plain water. Install dehumidifiers (especially in the basement) plus bathroom exhaust fans.
For allergens that travel inside with you from the great outdoors, change your clothes, wipe down your dog before coming inside, and, every week, use a damp cloth to wipe down window sills and frames, and door tops. Let sit for five minutes a mixture of 3/4 cup chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water to kill mold and mildew anywhere in the house or your car.
To summarize, exposing children to all types of potential allergens can actually prevent the development of unpleasant and possibly lethal allergies. This means letting kids play in the dirt – literally. However, once you know you have an allergy, avoid that substance when possible and keep your scene clean.