One out of every three people suffers from allergies: the runny nose, itchy eyes and sneezing that most people call hay fever. Even if the symptoms are not terribly overt, allergies can severely impact day to day living and can have potentially more serious side-effects to seniors, especially those in poor health.
Anything that causes an allergic reaction is called an allergen. The most familiar allergens are pollen, molds, dust mites and pets, though there are dozens of other allergens such as cigarette and cigar smoke. Allergens cause a release of histamine, which dilates the blood vessels in and around the nose. This speeds up the arrival of germ-fighting cells to the infected areas.
If you suffer from allergies, your eyes may become itchy and watery. You may also experience increased mucus production and a runny nose. Germ-fighting cells get washed down the throat in the mucus, which can irritate the throat and cause soreness. Coughing and sneezing is the way your body attempts to keep the airway clear of both mucus and allergens.
For some people, allergies are a mild inconvenience experienced at certain times of the year. For those with severe reactions, allergies can result in more serious conditions, such as sinusitis, earaches, skin rashes, breathing difficulties and even asthma.
What are allergies?
Allergies are an overreaction by the body's immune system to ordinarily harmless substances. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, allergies are a widespread medical condition affecting more than 20 percent of the United States population.
People can have allergic reactions to many types of substances that are inhaled, eaten, or touched, or that come into contact with the body in some other way. The most common allergens (substances that produce an allergic response) include plant pollens, mold spores, dust mites, animal hair, stinging insects, foods (e.g., eggs, milk, nuts and seafood), latex, certain ingredients in cosmetics and dyes, poison ivy or poison oak, and certain drugs.
Allergies commonly cause respiratory or skin symptoms. Most cases are unpleasant but not serious, though several hundred people die each year in the United States from severe allergic reactions - called anaphylactic shock - to foods, insect bites or drugs such as penicillin.
Allergies are diagnosed through a medical history, a physical examination and skin tests using diluted samples of suspected allergens. However, people usually find out that they are allergic to something when they experience a reaction to it.
People with common respiratory allergies such as hay fever often experience watery, itchy eyes; sneezing; and a runny nose. Skin allergies can produce itching, rashes, blisters or hives.
Some people can experience extreme reactions to allergens. Anaphylactic shock in response to foods, insect stings or drugs may result in swelling of body tissues (including the throat), vomiting, cramps and a drop in blood pressure. When this occurs, it is considered a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.
How should allergies be treated?
A person with allergies may need to take medication such as antihistamines, decongestants and anti-inflammatories to relieve symptoms. In some cases, a series of injections (immunotherapy) may help make the person less sensitive to allergens.
See your doctor about your allergy symptoms if:
* Your symptoms are accompanied by fever or earache.
* You experience difficulty breathing.
Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to clear up a bacterial infection if present, and may also recommend a longer-term solution, such as allergy shots.
Copyright © 2004. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For more information, please visit www.seniormag.com