Medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 2/2021
In most people, allergens cause no reaction; for people affected by allergies, however, common reactions include upper respiratory tract symptoms like sneezing, wheezing, and coughing; itchy, watery eyes; and skin reactions. A more-severe respiratory symptom of an allergy is asthma. Allergens can be present in the environment (outdoor allergies), at home (indoor), and in foods and drugs; pets can also cause allergies. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as many as 40 to 50 million Americans are affected by allergies.
What Is an Allergy?
An allergy, or allergic reaction, occurs when a person who has an allergy is exposed to an allergen. The immune system overreacts in response to the allergen, causing the symptoms of an allergy. Examples of common allergens include pollen, pet dander, dust, and mold.
Airborne allergens enter the body through the nose and lungs (in other words, are inhaled). Examples of airborne allergens include pollen from grass, trees, and weeds; household dust (including dust mite particles); mold spores; and cat and dog dander.
Allergens can also be absorbed through the skin. Plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac can affect people this way.
Additional ways people are exposed to allergens include through food (shellfish and nut allergies are common examples) and through injected medications (penicillin, for example, is a well-known cause of a drug allergy). Insect bites or stings can also cause allergic reactions.
It’s not well understood why some people are affected by allergies and others are not. It is thought that allergies can run in families and that exposure to allergens during illness, when the body’s defenses are lowered, may result in the development of allergies in some people.
Allergies at Home
Possible indoor allergens include pet dander, dust mites, mold, and cockroaches. Indoor allergens are airborne and then settle on furniture and floor surfaces, where they may remain for some time.
To control indoor allergies, you’ll need to clean your home thoroughly and regularly. This involves removing items like carpets, overstuffed furniture, stuffed toys, non-encased mattresses, and any pillows or bedding that are not washable in hot water. And, unfortunately, if pets are the source of you indoor allergies, you may want to consider finding them a new home. Suggested cleaning practices include keeping all surfaces (floors, countertops, and walls) clean and free of clutter, vacuuming at least once a week (using a HEPA—high efficiency particulate air—filter), and dusting with a damp cloth. Wearing a dust mask when you clean can control exposure to household allergens.
To control mold and dust mites, reduce the humidity in your home. Air conditioners can reduce humidity, as well as keep outdoor allergens like pollen from entering the house if you keep the windows closed.
If cockroaches are a problem, keep food and garbage covered and use poison baits, boric acid, and traps to kill and remove them. (Avoid chemical cockroach control agents, as these may irritate your sinuses and lungs.)
Pet fur is often blamed for causing pet allergies (often to cats and dogs), but the actual cause of these allergies is the pet’s dander (dead skin that is shed), which collects on the fur and other surfaces. As well, a pet’s saliva or urine can carry potential allergens. Once shed, these allergens don’t lose their strength for a long time and can adhere to walls, clothing, and other surfaces. So you can still react to these allergens, even after the pet has been removed.
Symptoms of pet allergies tend to affect the eyes (inflammation), nose (congestion), lungs (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath), and skin (redness or rash).
The best treatment for pet allergies is to avoid contact with pets or, if you have a pet, to find it a new home. For many people, however, parting with their pet is not a desirable option. If this is the case, there are several things you can do to help manage your allergies:
- Thoroughly clean all surfaces in your home and remove any furniture your pet may have slept on as well as wall-to-wall carpet.
- Use throw rugs and wash them frequently in hot water.
- Wear a dust mask when you vacuum and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
- Cover air conditioning and forced-air heating vents in the bedroom with cheesecloth (or similar material) to control the spread of allergens throughout the house.
- Someone without an allergy should brush the pet outside regularly to remove dander.
Testing for Allergies
You may have a good idea of substances you’re allergic to before you talk to you doctor or undergo medical testing. Are your eyes itchy and watery during the spring when certain plants are in bloom? Do you sneeze when you pet a dog or cat? Do you become congested every time you visit a certain home or building? These reactions may indicate allergies, and noting their pattern—including suspected triggers and frequency—can help you and your doctor diagnose your allergies.
Your doctor can take additional steps to test for and identify your allergies. Be prepared to share your personal and medical history, as this may offer clues. Your doctor may then examine your ears, eyes, nose, throat, chest, and skin to look for signs of allergic reaction. Several tests may also be conducted—a skin test, blood test, or patch test.
- In a skin test, a small drop of a possible allergen is placed on the skin. A needle is then used to lightly prick or scratch the drop. If you are allergic to the substance, the test area will soon become red and swollen and will itch.
- A patch test is used to diagnose skin allergies (contact dermatitis). A possible allergen is placed on your skin and covered with a bandage. If you are allergic to the substance, you’ll develop a rash.
- Blood tests are an alternative for people who can’t undergo skin testing due to a skin condition or due to medications they are taking. Your doctor will take a sample of your blood, which is then tested in a lab. The allergen is added to the sample, and a measurement of your blood’s response (whether it “attacks,” or produces antibodies against—the allergen) is used to diagnose an allergy.
Treatment for Allergies
Approaches to treating allergies include avoiding your allergens, medication, and immunotherapy (allergy shots). You and your doctor will consider your medical history and the severity of your allergies to select the treatment that is best for you.
Differentiate Allergies from COVID-19
by Allison McLaughlin 01/21/21
You sneeze once...and twice...and you start to get a bit of headache pressure. Now you’ve developed a cough, and even though you are an allergy sufferer, you can’t help but wonder if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The past year has made everyone hypervigilant about any health symptoms they experience, and the new virus on the block is the culprit. Even though some of the COVID-19 symptoms are the same as allergy symptoms, there are a few tell-tale clues that separate the two.
The following symptoms can be present in both COVID-19 and allergy attacks, making people wonder precisely what ailment they are experiencing.
A cough is one of the main symptoms of COVID-19; however, allergy sufferers can sometimes develop a cough with post-nasal drip.
The sinus pain and pressure of allergies can cause a headache in many seasonal sufferers. COVID-19 also produces a headache for many who contract the virus.
3. Shortness of breath
Severe allergy attacks can cause wheezing or shortness of breath. These symptoms can be extra scary for folks wondering if they could have COVID-19 instead of allergies. Shortness of breath and other breathing problems are more severe symptoms associated with COVID-19 cases.
4. Sore throat
Both COVID-19 and allergy sufferers can experience a sore throat. As related to allergies, excessive post-nasal drip is usually responsible for this symptom.
5. Congestion/runny nose
Allergy sufferers know all too well the misery of a runny nose and congestion. However, these symptoms are also common in COVID-19.
Taste and smell
It is a well-known, tell-tale sign of COVID-19 when a sudden and complete loss of smell occurs. While not all people who contract COVID-19 experience this symptom, you can be nearly 100 percent certain of a COVID-19 diagnosis if it appears.Allergy sufferers can also experience a slight loss of smell or taste if they have significant congestion or if polyps are present, blocking the nasal passages. This symptom is somewhat rare for allergy sufferers or so mild it is barely noticed.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, they are not due to allergies. These symptoms are also present in other winter conditions like colds and the flu but absent for allergy sufferers.● Fever● Fatigue● Body aches● Nausea and vomiting● Diarrhea
Allergy symptoms (not related to COVID-19)
If you are experiencing the following symptoms, allergies are probably the culprit. If allergies do not cause the symptoms, a cold or the flu might also be a possibility. What’s certain is these symptoms are not COVID-19 related.● Ear congestion● Itchy-watery eyes● sneezing
People with allergies are generally frequent sufferers because the basis of their symptoms is a reoccurring allergen their body’s immune system cannot tolerate. Whether it is springtime pollen and other blooming culprits or winter allergies that are primarily indoor allergens such as dust mites and pet dander, people have an ongoing reaction. Therefore, these conditions are said to be chronic and recurring.COVID-19, on the other hand, is an acute condition, which means it comes on suddenly and lasts a duration of time. For the lucky ones, then the illness runs its course, and the person recovers.
Certainly, COVID-19 is nothing to leave to chance. If you are still uncertain whether your symptoms are allergy related or due to COVID-19, seek the help of a medical professional. Understandably, you might be concerned about spreading the disease or contracting it if you are negative, so physically visiting a doctor’s office might not be agreeable for some people. If you just want to eliminate the possibility of having COVID-19, there are many drive up testing centers with fast results. Once a negative result is confirmed, you might consider telemedicine as an alternative to an office visit. Telemedicine options are plentiful and easy to access online. A medical professional can assess your symptoms and provide answers to get you on a path of healing and feeling better.
If your symptoms are definitely due to allergies, you have several options for relief. Over the counter medicines that treat allergies might make you feel better, but the minute the dose wears off, you have to take more. This treatment method is merely masking the symptoms and not correcting the problem.
Allergies are caused by your body’s inability to stave off an allergen. Immunotherapy is an allergy treatment that works to address this issue by subjecting your body to small amounts of the allergen regularly so your body can build an immunity to the problem. Immunotherapy eases your allergy symptoms, so you feel better and start working on the root of the problem, so eventually, your body no longer reacts adversely to the allergen.
Allergy drops and allergy shots are two popular methods that not only provide lasting relief but also begin knocking out your allergy trigger.Allergy shots are a popular and excellent treatment plan. Shot treatment is generally weekly for a year and then adjusted as symptoms decline. Allergy drops are an alternative to shots. Depending on your symptoms and their severity, allergy drops are usually prescribed for daily use. Drops are just as effective as shots and more convenient for many people. Both the shots and drops subject the body to the problem-causing allergens and allow them to build up over time, eventually eliminating their power over the immune system.
A more comprehensive solution to severe allergies is having allergy testing done to pinpoint exact triggers for a more robust approach to eradicating allergy symptoms. This treatment plan is the most involved and time-consuming route. You should have a formal assessment to know which therapy is best for your particular symptoms and allergies and then treat them accordingly.
This may involve taking measures at home (such as thorough cleaning, replacing carpets with hardwood floors, and removing pets) and adjustments in your lifestyle (taking a vacation when seasonal allergies where you live are at their peak, for example).
There are many medication options to treat allergies—both by prescription and over the counter. Your doctor can help you choose a type of medication. Options include: antihistamines, which help relieve skin reactions and sneezing, itching, and runny nose; decongestants, which help reduce nasal congestion, or “stuffiness”
eye drops to temporarily relieve burning and bloodshot eyes.
corticosteroid creams or ointments to relieve itchiness and control rashes.
corticosteroid nasal sprays (prescription) to reduce nasal inflammation and congestion.
cromolyn sodium (prescription) to prevent nasal congestion.
oral corticosteroids (prescription) to reduce swelling and stop severe allergic reactions.
epinephrine (injectable, prescription) for use during a life-threatening anaphylactic attack.
You should consult with your doctor about any medications—prescription and over the counter—you are taking to help control your allergies. Some prescription medications can cause serious side effects (such as oral corticosteroids) and require close monitoring by a doctor. Make sure you understand the potential side effects of all medications you are taking.
Immunotherapy (Allergy Shots)
Immunotherapy can be used to prevent allergy symptoms when it’s not possible to avoid your allergens and medications don’t provide adequate control. These shots work by making you less sensitive to the allergen over time. To do so, the patient is injected with increasingly higher doses of the allergen.
Know your symptoms
It is essential to know your exact symptoms to begin eliminating possible illnesses and causes. By understanding the difference between allergy and COVID-19 symptoms, you can start constructing a plan of action.
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