Allergies are becoming increasingly prevalent today, affecting between 10 to 40% of the world population. We are all most familiar with allergic rhinitis (hay fever) that causes sneezing, stuffy nose, watery eyes, and itchy throat. However, there are other types of allergies such as skin allergies, asthma, drug allergies and food allergies that affect millions of people worldwide. How does one get an allergy and more importantly, how do we prevent them? Before we proceed, we need to first answer the most important question: what are allergies?
What are allergies?
We talk about them all the time and relate them to sneezing and watery eyes, but what are allergies, really? Allergies are hypersensitive immune responses to substances that either enter or come in contact with the body.
The substance that causes that allergic reaction is referred to as an “allergen”. Allergens can be found anywhere – in food, drinks, or the environment. The most common allergens are dust, pollen, and nuts. Other than that, animal dander, cat saliva, and mould are also common allergens.
Most allergens are actually harmless, i.e. most people are not affected by them. However, if you are allergic to a substance, your immune system reacts to it as it if were a pathogen (a foreign harmful substance) and will try to destroy it.
What are allergies caused by?
The next big question we always get is “what are allergies caused by?”. Allergies are actually caused by your own immune system, but triggered by allergens.
Allergens may trigger your allergies, but they are actually not harmful. Your immune system has simply become oversensitive to that substance, which causes you to react as though the allergen was a harmful pathogen such as an undesirable bacteria, virus, toxin or fungus.
When your immune system reacts to an allergen, it releases a type of antibody called immunoglobulin (IgE) to destroy the allergen. IgE causes chemicals in the body to be produced, and it is these chemicals that cause the allergic reaction.
One of these chemicals is called histamine, which causes tightening of the muscles, including those in the airways and blood vessel walls. It also makes your nose produce more mucus.
So the next time you blame your pet, pollen, or dust mites for your allergies, stop. What’s causing your allergic reaction is actually your immune system that is mistaking the harmless substances as harmful ones.
Why do only some people get allergies?
Allergies can affect anyone, but there are some risk factors that increase your chances of developing an allergy. Below are just some risk factors associated with allergies
- A family history of allergies and/or asthma
- Being a child – children are more likely to develop an allergy than an adult. Luckily, many children outgrow their allergies
- Having asthma
- Lack of exposure to sunlight – research found that children living in areas with less sunlight had higher rates of allergies
- Having an allergy – if you already have an allergy, you’re at a higher risk of developing an allergy to something else
- Lack of early childhood exposure to allergen – the hygiene hypothesis states that this increases susceptibility to allergies by suppressing the natural development of the immune system
How to prevent allergies
Even though there are treatments to help alleviate allergy symptoms, it’s important that you avoid exposure to specific allergens. This may not be easy at all – avoiding pollen in spring and summer is virtually impossible, and even the cleanest houses will have some traces of dust mites or fungal spores. Food allergies can also be challenging to manage, as traces of allergens can appear in the most unlikely meals.
However, here are some things you can do to prevent developing an allergic reaction, depending on what causes your specific allergies:
Reduce exposure to dust mites
- Instead of carpets and rugs, opt for hard floor surfaces in your home and office
- Instead of curtains, use roller blinds
- Vacuum cushions, chairs, and soft toys regularly. If possible, wash them in a high temperature setting to kill dust mites
- Avoid using woolen blankets and feather pillows as these can harbour a lot of dust
- Don’t use a feather or dry duster to clean – these can scatter more allergens into the air. Instead, wipe surfaces with a damp cloth
- Remove airborne dust from the air with HEPA air purifiers that can remove allergens from the air you breathe in
Avoid cats and dogs
- Avoid close contact with cats and dogs. The protein in their urine, saliva, skin and hair can cause allergic reactions
- Avoid owning pets. If this is impossible, try confining them to certain areas of the house only
- Never let pets into your bedroom
- Groom pets regularly outside (or get someone else to do it for you)
- Wash pets’ bedding and soft toys regularly in high temperature setting
- Take antihistamines before visiting someone else’s house with pets
- Air purifiers can also help remove pet hair and dander from the air
Preventing mould spore allergy
- Check your house for leaks, condensation, and mouldy areas. This is especially common in bathrooms and basements
- Clean small mouldy areas yourself, or get a mould removal specialist to clear large or difficult mould problems
- Avoid having carpets in damp areas of your home
- Ensure all hard surfaces are mould-free
- If mould is detected inside drywall, it must be cut out and replaced
- Make sure bathrooms are well-ventilated
- Use dehumidifiers and air conditioners to help keep the house dry
Preventing food allergies
- The top allergenic ingredients in food are fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, milk or eggs
- Always check the ingredients list on the label before buying
- Simple hygiene can help reduce your risk of coming into contact with a food allergen. For example, wash hands with soap and water to remove all traces of the allergens
- Keep working surfaces clean with a good household cleaner
Preventing pollen allergies (hay fever)
- Use over-the-counter antihistamines to reduce the classic symptoms of hay fever
- Keep doors and windows closed to prevent pollen and outdoor mould from entering
- Avoid going outdoors in the morning (5am to 10am) and on windy days when pollen counts are high.
- Keep car windows closed when traveling and make sure the air filter is regularly serviced
- When arriving home from the outdoors, change clothes and take a shower to remove pollen gathered on clothes, skin and hair
- Get someone else to mow your lawn
- Avoid grassy areas such as fields and parks
- Wear wraparound sunglasses when outdoors
- Avoid drying clothes and sheets outdoors when pollen counts are high
- Keep track of the pollen count in your area
- If you are also allergic to cats and dogs, stay away from pets when pollen levels are high as ragweed allergy symptoms can get worse
If you are vulnerable to anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, make sure you have an “allergy action plan”.
Parents should inform their school, day care center, etc., regarding their child’s allergy and what to do in an anaphylactic emergency.
Tell your work colleagues and friends so that they can help you in an emergency.
You should always carry an epinephrine autoinjector, e.g. an EpiPen, and wear a medical alert bracelet. It is advisable to receive professional counseling on how to avoid triggers.
We hope this post has helped you understand more on what are allergies and why you get them. If you always get allergies at home or in the office, consider investing in a HEPA air purifier to remove allergens from indoor air, or a dehumidifier if you have a mould problem at home that’s causing your allergies.
“Why do people have seasonal allergies?” by Eleanor Nelsen. https://ed.ted.com/lessons/why-do-some-people-have-seasonal-allergies-eleanor-nelsen
“Why do we have allergies?” by Carl Zimmer. https://mosaicscience.com/story/why-do-we-have-allergies
Header Image: Illustration by Sam Taylor
GIF image credits: TED-Ed