From the merely annoying to the potentially dangerous, allergies affect an estimated one in five Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation. Learning about our bodies’ reactions to allergens can help us identify them in ourselves and family members and pursue the correct course of treatment.
What causes allergies?
An allergic reaction begins in the immune system. Our immune system protects us from invading organisms that can cause illness. If you have an allergy, your immune system mistakes an otherwise harmless substance as an invader. This substance is called an allergen. The immune system overreacts to the allergen by producing Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These antibodies travel to cells that release histamine and other chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.
What are the symptoms of allergies?
The most common symptoms are sneezing, runny nose and nasal congestion, often accompanied by itching of the eyes, nose and palate. Postnasal drip, cough, irritability and fatigue are other common symptoms. Young children typically do not blow their noses and instead may repeatedly snort, sniff, cough and clear their throats. Anaphylaxis is the most severe type of reaction that can occur in response to allergies and can be seen with food allergies, drugs and stinging insect allergies.
What should someone do if they think they might have allergies?
It is important to find out exactly what you are allergic to so that you can take measures to avoid those allergens. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to get allergy tested.
How does allergy testing work?
What we do in our office is something called skin prick testing. We have about 50 different allergens we can test you for. We basically use a tiny toothpick and gently scratch the surface of your back. If you are allergic to something, your back will start to feel itchy. After only about 20 minutes, you will find out exactly what you are allergic to.
Once you find out what you are allergic to, how are allergy symptoms treated?
One thing you can do is take measures to decrease your exposure to the allergens that you react to. For example, the use of dust-mite impermeable bedding covers can help decrease exposure to allergens in those allergic to dust mites.
There are also medications you can take to treat your allergies. For some, using over-the-counter antihistamines is enough. Others may have more severe symptoms and need prescription pills or nasal sprays that their doctor can prescribe for them. If those don’t work, allergy shots are also an option.
How do allergy shots work?
Allergy shots involve the administration of exactly what a person is allergic to, such as pollens, pet dander, molds and dust mites. However, when allergens are administered in injection form, under the skin, the body treats the allergens more like a vaccine. Infection-fighting antibodies, or IgG, are formed against the allergens, which act to “turn off” the body’s production of IgE. When IgE stops being made, mast cells found in the nasal passages won’t be activated as easily when you are exposed to the allergens naturally.
What is the relationship between allergies and asthma?
Asthma and allergies may represent a spectrum of the same disease entity. Asthma occurs in 25 to 50 percent of individuals with allergies. Studies have even shown that treating allergies in asthma patients decreases asthma-related hospitalizations and emergency rooms visits.
What is the difference between seasonal and food allergies, biologically speaking?
Allergies to pollens and foods develop the same way. You need exposure to the offending allergen at least once before you can become sensitized. For foods, the most common routes of sensitization are the gastrointestinal tract or through the skin. For pollens, the most common route of sensitization is inhalation. Symptoms are different in patients with allergic rhinitis versus patients with food allergies. The most common symptoms in patients with allergic rhinitis are runny nose, congestion and sneezing, whereas patients with food allergies can have vomiting and hives.
Are allergies genetic?
Yes, there is a genetic component to allergies. If you have one parent with allergies, you have about a 30 percent chance of developing allergies. If both parents have allergies, your chances increase to about 70 percent.
Can allergies change over time?
Yes. Allergies can either get better over time or they can worsen.
Dr. Gital Patel
Dr. Gital Patel, MD, of Premier Allergy, grew up in Cincinnati. She attended Ursuline Academy for high school (Class of 1999) and completed a 6 year BS/MD program at Northeast Ohio Medical University.
Patel met her future husband in medical school and followed him to New Orleans, where she completed her residency and fellowship training. She trained under renowned leaders in immunology and specializes in evaluating and treating patients with immune deficiencies. She has a special interest in children with recurrent infections, allergies and eczema.
She has been involved in the latest research and was recently published in The Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. She is board certified in pediatrics and pediatric and adult allergy and immunology.
Patel enjoys traveling and cooking. She resides in Columbus with her husband, who also graduated from NEOMED, and their son.