Allergies: How They Work in the Body

Jul 21, 2023

Allergies occur when your immune system reacts by producing antibodies that “attack” foreign substances, such as pollen, bee venom, pet dander, dust, mold, medicine, or even certain foods. The first encounter with an allergen triggers the creation of immunoglobulin E (IgE) in your body. Subsequently, exposure to the allergen can cause inflammation in your skin, sinuses, airways, or digestive system.

In the United States alone, over 50 million people experience allergic reactions each year, making them the sixth-leading cause of long-term illness.

Who do allergies affect?

Allergies can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. If your biological parents have allergies, you are more likely to have or develop them. Allergies are more common in children, but they can occur at any age or reappear after a period of remission. Hormones, stress, smoke, perfume, and environmental irritants may also contribute to the development or severity of allergies. Allergens can enter your body through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact.

How are allergies tested?

  • Skin prick (scratch) tests can identify the allergens causing your symptoms. An allergist will use a thin needle to prick your skin with small amounts of various potential allergens and observe your skin’s reaction.
  • Blood (IgE) tests can also identify allergies, but they are less sensitive than skin prick tests. These blood tests evaluate the IgE antibodies produced by your immune system in response to specific proteins.

What are the most common allergies?

  • Certain foods: Food allergies trigger the release of specific antibodies upon ingestion, resulting in immediate and potentially severe reactions.
  • Medications and Supplements
  • Environmental factors such as pollen and dust
  • Insect bites or stings
  • Pet allergens

Symptoms vary but can include:

  • Difficulty breathing, such as sinus congestion or nasal passage blockage
  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Watery, red, or swollen eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Tingling in the mouth
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, face, or throat
  • Itchy, red, flaky, or peeling skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe allergic reactions can trigger a life-threatening condition known as anaphylaxis. Some severe reactions requite immediate emergency assistance

How are allergies treated?

Managing allergies often involves over-the-counter or prescription medications, including:

  • Antihistamines such as fexofenadine, loratadinecetirizine (All Day Allergy-D® or Zyrtec®)
  • Nasal sprays
  • Asthma medications
  • Inhaled or oral bronchodilators
  • Inhaled steroids
  • Oral antileukotrienes (e.g., montelukast, zafirlukast, zileuton)
  • Injected drugs (e.g., omalizumab, dupilumab, benralizumab)
  • Immunotherapy

Consult a healthcare professional before starting any treatment and to determine the most appropriate course of action for your specific allergies.

Sources: Mayo Clinic , John Hopkins Medicine , Cleveland Clinic.


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