Top 12 Allergens
These main allergy triggers can have you sneezing and sniffling — and more — all year long.
By Michelle Olson
Aaachooo! There's something in the air, all right: allergens. For the millions of people who suffer from allergy symptoms and asthma, these particles can induce respiratory misery all year long. Throw in the many foods, pharmaceuticals, and other substances that cause severe allergic reactions and it's clear that allergens are everywhere. While symptoms can vary from the sniffles to a life-threatening breathing obstruction, the cause is the same: These allergic reactions happen when the body's immune system overreacts to harmless substances by releasing antibodies and histamines that go on the attack, spurring numerous reactions. Here are 12 common causes of allergies.
Here's the bad news for those who suffer from mold allergies: The sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and itchy eyes won't necessarily clear up once summer is over. Sure, mold thrives outdoors in the warmer months in rotting wood, fallen leaves, grass, grains, and dead plants. But it also loves the moisture-rich areas of your home, especially the bathroom, kitchen, and basement. Because mold is spread by floating spores, it's especially good at finding its way into your nasal passages — all year long. To lessen symptoms, keep outdoor time to a minimum during the late summer months, when mold is rampant, and use air filters on indoor vents in your home.
Not in my clean house, you say? Don't be so sure. These microscopic eight-legged arthropods live in every American home. All they need to thrive is the dead skin you and your family naturally shed every day. It's actually not the mites themselves that cause the sneezing and watery eyes brought on by breathing dust — it's their waste. Dust mites get particularly comfy in the bedroom, so if you're allergic to these pests, avoid down pillows and blankets, wool rugs, curtains, and upholstery.
Although bright, pungent-smelling flowers often take the heat, it's actually non-showy plants that are to blame for the most common chronic disease in the United States: hay fever. Trees, weeds, and grasses release pollen into the air to fertilize nearby plants — a process that inevitably causes this fine powder to land on passersby as well. Ragweed, the most notorious offender, is responsible for 75 percent of all pollen allergy symptoms. Hay fever sufferers can protect themselves by avoiding high pollen counts in the early morning, paying attention to local pollen reports, and taking one of the many available prescription or over-the-counter antihistamine and decongestant medications.
Your furry or feathery companion might be your best friend, but the dead skin, saliva, and urine on its body are the worst enemies of those who suffer from pet dander allergies. The cause is a highly sensitive immune system that overreacts to the harmless proteins found in pet dander. In extremely sensitive allergy sufferers, the dander particles can enter the lungs and cause wheezing and difficulty breathing, and possibly lead to chronic asthma. People can be allergic to all or just certain breeds of dogs, but cat lovers take heed: Cat allergies are twice as common as the pooch-induced kind.
Natural rubber products like adhesive bandages, latex gloves, condoms, and balloons are made from the sap of Brazilian rubber trees; proteins in these trees are the cause of latex allergic reactions. The most common reaction is contact dermatitis, a blotchy, itchy red rash that develops within 24 hours. Accompanying symptoms may include stuffy nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, asthma symptoms, nausea, rapid pulse, light-headedness, and fainting. In some cases, anaphylactic shock can ensue, causing the blood vessels to widen and blood pressure to drop — this life-threatening reaction requires immediate medical attention. Fortunately, nonlatex substitutes for these products are widely available.
Stinging insects like wasps, hornets, bees, and fire ants (all of which are members of the order Hymenoptera) protect themselves from their enemies with toxic venom. For most people, stings from these insects leave an annoying, mildly painful bump that disappears within a few days. In some people, though, the first insect sting can cause an allergic reaction with symptoms that include severe local swelling that takes weeks to dissipate. The second sting can cause a total-body, anaphylactic reaction, including swelling of the tongue, dizziness, chest constriction, breathing difficulty, fainting, heart attack, and, if medical attention is not sought, death. Epinephrine kits and immunotherapy vaccinations are a couple of precautions doctors recommend for those who have had a severe reaction to insect stings.
The deep blue sea might be teeming with delicacies, but seafood and shellfish are the most common causes of food allergies. Reactions include hives, eczema, asthma, digestive problems, and anaphylactic shock. Shellfish allergic reactions can be triggered either by mollusks (clams, mussels, and oysters) or by crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, and crab). Common seafood allergens are scaly and bony fish like cod, salmon, trout, and halibut. It's not uncommon for a person to be allergic to only one seafood species, which makes avoidance a bit easier. Still, anyone with this type of allergy should beware — fish by-products can lurk in foods, medicines, cosmetics, and lotions, so read labels carefully.
The health benefits of soy products are being shouted from the rooftops these days. Yet people with soybean allergies are up against the 15-plus allergy-provoking proteins that have been found so far in this Asian legume. Symptoms such as hives, eczema, asthma, nasal inflammation, and anaphylactic shock can occur after an allergic person ingests soy products. Some foods contain this allergen even though the word "soy" doesn't appear anywhere in their names. For example, tempeh, miso, and tofu all contain soy and can produce allergic reactions; fermented soy products, however — like soybean oil — do not often have an effect.
Approximately 2 percent of Americans are allergic to this member of the legume family — and it's the leading cause of food-related deaths in the United States. Trace amounts of peanuts can be found in everything from soups, baked goods, and cereals to ice cream and energy bars. People who are sensitive to peanuts exhibit extreme reactions to even the smallest exposure, with symptoms including eczema, hives, asthma, and anaphylactic shock. These reactions can occur throughout the allergy sufferer's lifetime, so the person must be diligent about reading food labels and inquiring about foods when eating out and at other people's homes. A peanut allergy is often present in people who are allergic to tree nuts like cashews, almonds, and pecans.
An allergic reaction to cow's milk is caused by an immune system that overreacts to one of the 20 or so proteins found in this dairy product. A reaction to milk can take the form of eczema, hives, asthma, or anaphylactic shock. Milk allergies are most prevalent in children under 3 — though people sometimes outgrow this allergy. Because derivatives of milk proteins like casein and whey are commonly found in other products, people with a milk allergy must be on the lookout for these ingredients as well.
Oddly enough, some people are allergic only to the yoke of the egg, while others are affected only by the white. Whatever part of the egg causes the reaction, it's the proteins found in eggs that are to blame. Egg allergy symptoms can include hives, eczema, asthma, digestive problems, and anaphylactic shock. Eggs are found in an array of foods — baked goods, pastas, cereals, condiments, soups, and beverages — making avoidance difficult. They are also sometimes included in cosmetics and drugs. To make it more difficult, eggs are sometimes disguised by names like albumin, lecithin, silici albuminate, vitellin, and a variety of words beginning with "ovo-," so people with this kind of allergy must be on the lookout.
Beta-lactam antibiotics, including penicillin and amoxicillin, are widely used to treat bacterial infections. An allergic reaction to penicillin is not a side effect of the drug, but rather a severe immune reaction to it. Symptoms such as hives, eczema, asthma, swollen lips or tongue, and anaphylactic shock can occur within minutes of taking the medication but may not appear until days later. People are not born with a penicillin allergy; rather, they develop it after exposure to the drug. Reexposure to the drug, then, is when symptoms first arise.
Show hospitality to strangers for, by doing that, some have entertained angels unawares.
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