What are Allergies?

Millions of people in the United States suffer from allergies. An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a substance (an allergen). Allergies can occur seasonally, when certain plants or trees are in bloom; can be chronic, as when exposed to a particular allergen on a regular basis; or can be episodal, as in an insect bite.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of allergies are as widespread, but the most common symptoms include:

  • Itchy eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Headache

Other symptoms may include:

  • Scratchy, sore throat or coughing
  • Swelling in face or throat
  • Skin irritations
  • Respiratory problems
  • Asthma

Some of the ear, nose and throat problems that can be related to allergy include:

  • Recurrent sinusitis
  • Recurrent otitis media (ear infections)
  • Hoarseness
  • Dizziness

Causes of Allergies

Any substance can be an allergen, and some people are highly sensitive to allergens in the environment. The most common allergens include:

  • Pollens – Pollen is the cause of most seasonal allergies, and is most prevalent in the fall, as well as early spring. Ragweed affects many people, and it pollenates from early August until the first frost. In the spring, pollen from various grasses, trees and weeds irritate most people with seasonal allergies.
  • Mold – Mold (and mildew) is an allergen that’s present year-round and grows indoors and out. Mold develops due to moisture, and can be found in dead leaves, old books, bathrooms and other damp areas.
  • Animals – Many people who are allergic to cats, dogs, and other animals are actually allergic to a protein found in the saliva, dander (dead skin flakes), or urine of an animal with fur.
  • Dust Mites – A common cause of year-round allergies and asthma is dust in the home. Dust mites can live in bedding, furniture or carpets, and cause cold-like respiratory symptoms.

Diagnosing Allergies

If you have a persistant runny nose in the early fall – chances are you’re allergic to ragweed. Likewise, if you develop allergy symptoms around cats, you’re probably allergic to cat dander. However, sometimes it’s difficult to determine what allergen a person is reacting to, making it hard to treat the symptoms. ENT specialists often use specific tests to diagnosis allergies.

The primary tests used are:

  • Allergen-specific IgE antibody test – a blood test used to screen for an allergy to a specific allergen
  • Skin testing – testing used to determine the exact source of the allergy

Is it allergies, or is it a cold?

Often, allergy symptoms closely imitate cold symptoms, and in the early fall and spring, it can be difficult to tell the two apart. Here’s a quick reference quide:

Symptoms– Runny or stuffy nose
– Sneezing
– Itchy or watery eyes
Same as allergies. May also include:
– Fever
– Body aches and pains
Warning TimeSymptoms begin immediatelyMay take a few days after exposure for symptoms to develop
DurationUsually ends when exposure to allergen ends, maybe a little longer10-14 days

Treatment Options

Treatment depends on the source of the allergy as well as the severity. Treatment options include:


In some instances, it is most helpful to simply avoid the allergen. Allergic reactions to most household allergens (pet dander, dust, mold) can be avoided by vacuuming and dusting often, wearing a pollen mask when doing yardwork or dusting, keeping windows tightly closed during fall and spring, and changing the air filters monthly in heating and air conditioning systems.


There are many over-the-counter and prescription medications available to relieve allergy symptoms. Ask your doctor what is right for you:

  • Antihistimines are used to prevent or relieve allergy symptoms by preventing the body from reacting to the allergen. Antihistimines are best used if your symptoms include sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes or congestion. Side effects include drowsiness and dry mouth.
  • Decongestants are used to relieve the nasal congestion associated with allergies. Possible side effects include stimulation and insomnia
  • Combinations of antihistimines and decongestants are also available
  • Anti-inflammatory agents are used for more severe allergies, and are usually a prescribed medication

Immunotherapy (Allergy Shots)

Immunotherapy gradually exposes a person to increasing amounts of an allergen over a period of time, and helps the person to actually develop an immunity to the allergen.

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