Your immune system creates antibodies to fight off foreign substances so you don’t get sick. Sometimes your system will identify a substance as harmful, even though it isn’t. When this happens, it’s called an allergic reaction.
These substances (allergens) can be anything from food and medication to environments.
When your body comes in contact with these allergens, it can cause mild symptoms like skin irritation, watery eyes, or sneezing. In some people, allergies can lead to anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition. It results in shock, a sudden drop in blood pressure, and difficulty breathing. This can lead to respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.
What causes an allergic reaction?
Doctors don’t know why some people experience allergies. Allergies appear to run in families, which means they can be inherited. If you have a close family member who has allergies, you’re at greater risk for developing them.
The reasons why allergies develop are unclear, but some substances are known to commonly cause an allergic reaction. People who have allergies are typically allergic to one or more of the following:
- pet dander, such as the kind from a cat or dog
- bee stings or bites from other insects
- certain foods, including nuts and shellfish
- certain medications, such as penicillin and aspirin
- certain plants
- dust mites
What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction?
The symptoms of an allergic reaction can vary from mild to severe. If you become exposed to an allergen for the first time, your symptoms may be mild. These symptoms may get worse if you repeatedly come into contact with the allergen.
Symptoms of a mild allergic reaction can include:
- hives, or itchy red spots on the skin
- allergic rhinitis, which may lead to symptoms such as nasal congestion or sneezing
- scratchy throat
- watery or itchy eyes
Severe allergic reactions (usually to foods, insect stings, and medications) can cause the following symptoms:
- abdominal cramping or pain
- nausea or vomiting
- pain or tightness in the chest
- difficulty swallowing
- difficulty breathing
- fear or anxiety
- heart palpitations
- flushing of the face
- swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
- dizziness or vertigo
A severe and sudden allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis can develop just seconds after exposure to an allergen. This type of reaction results in life threatening symptoms, including:
- swelling of the airway
- an inability to breathe
- a sudden and severe drop in blood pressure
If you experience anaphylaxis, seek immediate emergency help. Without treatment, anaphylaxis can result in death.
Treating allergic reactionsMany mild to moderate allergic reactions can be treated at home or with OTC medications. The following treatments are commonly used to reduce the symptoms of an allergic reaction:
Antihistamines can help to treat most minor allergic reactions regardless of the cause. These drugs reduce the body’s production of histamine, which reduces all symptoms, including sneezing, watering eyes, and skin reactions.
Second-generation antihistamines, including Claritin (loratadine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine), are less likely to cause drowsiness than first-generation antihistamines, such as Benadryl.
Antihistamines come in several forms, usually to help deliver the medication closer to the source of the reaction or make it easier to consume, such as:
- oral pills
- dissolvable tablets
- nasal sprays
- eye drops
Antihistamines in these forms are available from pharmacies, or on prescription from a doctor.
Antihistamines can also be taken to prevent allergies. Many people with seasonal or pet allergies will begin taking antihistamines when they know they are going to be exposed to an allergen.
A person who is pregnant or has a liver disorder should consult their doctor before taking antihistamines.
Nasal decongestant pills, liquids, and sprays can also help reduce stuffy, swollen sinuses and related symptoms, such as a sore throat or coughing.
However, decongestant medications should not be taken continuously for more than 72 hours.
Anti-inflammatory medicationNon-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) may also be used to help temporarily reduce pain, swelling, and cramping caused by allergies.
Avoid the allergen
The best way to treat and prevent allergic reactions is to know what triggers the reaction and stay away from it, especially food allergens.
When this is not possible or realistic, using antihistamines or decongestants when in contact with allergens can help to treat the symptoms.
Use a saline sinus rinse
When allergies cause sinus problems, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) recommend a person rinse their sinuses with saline. This can remove allergens and clear the airways.
The AAAAI recommend the following saline recipe:
- mix 3 teaspoons of salt (without iodide) with 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- add 1 teaspoon of this mixture to 8 ounces of boiled water
- dissolve the mixture in the water then use as a saline rinse
Treating environmental allergies
For airborne allergens, such as pollen, dust, and mold spores, additional treatment options include:
- throat lozenges with soothing ingredients, such as menthol, honey, or ginger
- shower and wash all clothing after being exposed to an allergen
- exercise for a few minutes to help reduce nasal congestion
Treating allergies on the skin
For allergic reactions that cause skin symptoms, including those associated with allergens found in animal saliva, poisonous plants, drugs, chemicals and metals, additional treatment options include:
- Topical corticosteroid creams or tablets. Corticosteroids contain steroids that reduce inflammation and itching. Mild forms of these creams can be found online, and a doctor can prescribe stronger versions.
- Moisturizing creams. Emollient creams with soothing ingredients, such as calamine can treat skin reactions.
- Bite or sting medication. Medication targeted to reduce allergic reactions to insect bites or stings have a similar effect to other allergy medications.
- Ice pack. Applying an ice pack wrapped in cloth to the area for 10- to 15-minute intervals can reduce inflammation.
Treating severe allergies
People should speak to a professional if they have or suspect that they have severe or chronic allergies.
A doctor or allergy specialist can prescribe medications that contain much stronger doses of the compounds found in OTC products.
Treatment options for chronic or severe allergies include:
- Immunotherapy, or allergy shots. Immunotherapy can be between 90 and 98 percent effective at reducing allergic reactions to insect stings, for instance.
- Prescription asthma medications, such as bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids.
- Oral cromolyn can be taken for food allergies.
- Drug desensitization therapy is used for specific allergens.
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Natural remedies for allergic reactions
Many traditional medicine systems use herbal supplements and extracts to both treat and prevent allergic reactions, especially seasonal allergies.
Though there is little scientific evidence to support the use of most alternative or natural remedies, some people may find that some can provide relief from their symptoms.
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians recommend the following natural treatments for allergies:
- Dietary changes. A low-fat diet high in complex carbohydrates, such as beans, whole grains, and vegetables may reduce allergy reactions.
- Bioflavonoids. These plant-based chemicals found in citrus fruits and blackcurrants may act as natural antihistamines. These can also be taken as supplements.
- Supplements. Flaxseed oil, zinc, and vitamins A, C, and E are suggested to improve allergy symptoms.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture treatments may help some people to find relief from their symptoms.
Many people experience allergic reactions when they are exposed to specific allergens, ranging from pet dander and pollen to compounds in foods, drinks, and personal hygiene products.
The best way to treat an allergic reaction depends on the cause, though most minor cases can be treated with OTC antihistamine and anti-itch products.
A person should seek immediate medical attention for chronic or severe allergic reactions, especially those that involve swelling of the throat or changes in heart rate. Anaphylaxis should always be treated as a medical emergency.