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For the Pollen-Affected, Let's Talk Allergies

Dr. Grace Chiang of WellStar talks identifying allergies, symptoms, managing reactions, children and allergies, pets, and more.

What should you do if you're suffering from the high pollen count? How do you know if you are having an allergic reaction, to pollen, animals, foods or other items? What are allergies, and how should children deal with them?

Dr. Grace Chiang, who is in practice with WellStar Medical Group, Allergy and Asthma, and is board-certified in allergy/immunology and pediatrics, took the time to answer some questions about allergies.

What are the most common allergies and what causes them?

Many people have allergies triggered by substances inhaled from the air, such as pet dander, mold, dust mites and pollen.

The underlying cause of allergies is likely due to a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors. Many studies are underway to further elucidate the causes of allergies and why the incidence is rising in the U.S.

In general, allergies occur when your immune system overreacts to a substance that is usually not pathogenic or harmful. Risk factors for developing allergies include a positive family history or personal history of allergic conditions including asthma or eczema. 

Many people think they have a cold when it is actually allergies and vice versa. How do you differentiate between the two conditions?

Symptoms that may occur in both conditions include runny nose, congestion, sneezing and cough. With a cold, these symptoms may be associated with fever and body aches, lasting for seven to 10 days. With allergies, itching of the eyes and/or nose is often present. Symptoms usually last for weeks to months at a time, as long as the allergic trigger is present.

People tend to think of allergies as causing itchy eyes, runny noses, but can they cause more serious health risks?

Allergies can result in more serious health consequences in individuals with asthma. At least 80 percent of people with asthma have allergies that trigger their asthma, which can lead to coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. 

This may lead to asthma attacks that can result in ER visits or hospitalizations.  It is thus important for asthmatics to see an allergist and identify potential allergic triggers. Treating a patient’s allergies is an important part of optimizing asthma care.

If you do have allergies, how can you manage them?

A three-pronged approach is most effective in managing allergies:

  • Environmental control measures: strategies to minimize exposure to known allergic triggers, such as keeping a pet out of the bedroom, use of air filters and dust mite proof encasings.
  • Medications: help to control symptoms but often need to be taken regularly in order to be effective.
  • Immunotherapy (allergy shots): the only treatment available that alters your body’s immune response to allergens and provides long lasting relief, reducing symptoms and the need for medications.

How are allergies diagnosed?

Skin testing may be safely performed in children and adults to accurately diagnose allergies, under the supervision of a board certified allergist. 

Contrary to common belief, there is no age requirement for skin testing. For example, many infants are able to be skin tested for allergy to milk and/or soy, if there is a concern for allergy to their formula. 

Allergists are able to test for environmental and food allergies as well as stinging insects (bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jacket, fire ant) and penicillin. If skin testing is positive, a small, red, itchy bump develops within 15 minutes.

How are allergies related to other medical conditions, such as asthma and eczema?

Asthma and eczema are other forms of allergic disease. It is common for allergies, asthma and eczema to all occur in the same patient or family.

Having one of these conditions increases your risk for having the other two, something referred to as the “atopic march,” in which young children may initially have eczema and food allergies, later also developing allergies (hayfever) and asthma.

There is a lot of concern about giving children medicine. What is safe and what do you need to avoid?

It can be difficult navigating the many allergy treatments that are now available over the counter. It is worthwhile to see an allergist to establish the diagnosis of allergies first. Your allergist can then recommend specific treatments at doses that are safe for children.  

Is there any truth to the practice of exposing young children to more allergens and germs in order to build up their immune systems?

Some studies have shown that the risk of allergies is reduced for children who are around more bacteria or “germs,” as a result of growing up on a farm or with multiple pets or siblings in the home.

The exposure needs to occur very early in life, however, so making these changes later in childhood will not have a protective effect. This is likely an overly simplistic viewpoint however, as the underlying cause of allergies is likely a complex interaction between many variables, both genetic and environmental.

What about pet allergies? A lot of people want pets, but their allergies won’t allow them. Are there treatments people can take to help with this?

Allergy shots are the most effective treatment to allow people to live or interact with pets they are allergic to. The allergy shots gradually introduce cat or dog dander to the body’s immune system, helping that individual to develop greater tolerance, or “immunity.” It takes time for the allergy shots to result in improvement, but they are the most effective treatment available in providing long term relief.

This article was originally published on Marietta Patch in 2012.

 


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