Allergies can be caused by all kinds of different substances that you breathe, eat, or touch. They cause your immune system, which normally protects you against disease, to respond abnormally to a generally harmless substance by releasing massive amounts of chemicals which cause allergic symptoms. Some allergies are uncomfortable, but not serious. Others have the potential to result in anaphylactic shock and death.
"Allergy" is a term that has been lately used more broadly than the strictly medical definition. A real allergic reaction involves your immune system. Many people use the term to include food sensitivities, or reactions to certain foods that make them feel unwell (such as celiac disease), but which do not cause an immune response. This is probably why roughly 25 people out of 100 believe they have a food allergy, when in fact only about 4 out of 100 do.
You can be allergic to many substances that contact your body in some way. Most allergies involve:
  • pollen, mold or pet dander
  • food allergies
  • drugs
  • insect stings
  • chemicals contacting the skin (from medications, cosmetics, or plants such as poison ivy)  
During a true allergic reaction, you will have some of the following symptoms:
  • itching or swelling on your skin, or in your mouth (in the case of a food allergy)
  • stuffy or itchy nose and/or itchy eyes
  • gastrointestinal problems such as cramping, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (if it is a food allergy)
  • extreme heartburn
  • hives or eczema
  • trouble breathing
  • dizziness or fainting
  • tingling in your hands, feet, lips or scalp
  • rapid heart rate and/or drop in blood pressure  
These symptoms can sometimes get worse with repeated exposure to the substance you are allergic too (allergen), which can eventually lead to anaphylaxis, an extreme and very fast allergic response which can be life threatening. 
Allergy relief from low level allergies can often be achieved through medication (over the counter or Rx), immunotherapy, avoidance of the allergen, and even dietary changes.
Your primary doctor may refer you to an allergist, who is a specialist in identifying and treating allergies. An allergist will give you a physical exam and a series of tests such as skin and blood testing to figure out what is causing the reaction. A course of treatment is then prescribed.
A severe allergic reaction can be life threatening and is called anaphylaxis.
Symptoms of anaphylactic shock develop very rapidly, within seconds or minutes, and can include:
  • Difficulty breathing, chest tightness, wheezing
  • Fast heart rate
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting
  • Lump in the throat, throat tightness, hoarseness
  • Grayish or bluish skin that is cold and clammy
  • Tingling feeling in the lips, scalp, hands or feet
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Slurred speech  
If the doctor thinks you could go into anaphylactic shock from accidental contact with an allergen, you are likely to get a prescription for injectable epinephrine, a hormone that will help prevent anaphylaxis once an allergic reaction has begun. You must carry the drug with you at all times, because a dangerous anaphylactic reaction occurs so rapidly.
If you or someone you are with is suspected of having an anaphylactic reaction, call 911 immediately.
The best treatment to prevent anaphylactic shock is to avoid anything that causes it.
Common foods that can cause anaphylaxis in adults
  • Shellfish – shrimp, scallops, oysters, crayfish, crab, lobster
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts – pecans, cashews and walnuts  
Insect stings and latex can also cause anaphylaxis
Common medicines that can create problems are:
  • Penicillin and related antibiotics
  • Sulfa drugs
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Insulin preparations (particularly animal based ones)
  • Iodinated x-ray contrast dyes  
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