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Understanding Allergic Reactions
An allergic reaction occurs when a person’s immune system produces antibodies to protect them from a seemingly harmful substance (called an allergen). For example, when an allergic person comes in contact with a peanut through taste, touch, or smell, the body reacts to defend against the allergen “invader.” The antibodies of the allergic person cause mast cells to release histamine into the bloodstream to defend against the allergen. It’s the release of these chemicals that causes allergic reactions such as itching, swelling, nausea, and difficulty breathing. The reaction can affect a person’s eyes, nose, throat, lungs, skin, or gastrointestinal tract as the body gears up for attack. Initial exposure to an allergen may cause a mild reaction; however, future exposures to the same allergen will trigger more severe reactions.
Many mild allergic reactions are common, while others can be severe and life-threatening. Allergic reactions occur more often in people who have a family history of allergies. The most severe form is called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock.
Common allergens include:
Signs of an Allergic Reaction
Common symptoms of a mild allergic reaction include:
Symptoms of a moderate or severe reaction include:
First Aid Treatment
For a mild to moderate reaction:
1. Stay calm and reassure the person having the reaction. Anxiety can worsen symptoms.
2. Try to identify the allergen and have the person avoid further contact with it.
3. If the person develops a rash or hives, apply cool compresses and an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream.
4. Watch the person for symptoms that worsen.
5. Contact a doctor. For a mild reaction, a health care provider may recommend
over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines.
For a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis):
1. Call 911.
2. Check the person’s airway, breathing, and circulation. A swollen throat will cause a very hoarse voice and difficulty breathing. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.
3. Stay calm and reassure the person.
4. If the person has emergency allergy medication on hand, such as an epinephrine injection*, help the person take or inject the medication. Avoid oral medication if the person is having difficulty breathing. Antihistamines, such as Benadryl, will not relieve severe symptoms of anaphylaxis.
5. In order to prevent shock, have the person lie flat, raise the person’s feet about 12 inches, and cover him or her with a coat or blanket.
*After receiving epinephrine, the affected person should go immediately to a hospital emergency department, where additional treatment can be given. It is common for allergic reaction symptoms to resurface after a couple of hours of receiving epinephrine.
Preventing Allergic Reactions
There are no cures for allergies; however, there are ways to manage them to avoid a reaction:
By taking preventive measures and treatments, people with allergies can enjoy happy, healthy lives.
Tips to Avoid Environmental Allergens:
- Remove carpets or rugs from your house or bedroom (hard floor surfaces don’t collect dust as much as carpets do).
- Clean regularly.
- Use special hypoallergenic covers to seal pillows and mattresses.
- Keep the windows closed when the pollen season is at its peak, and change your clothing and shower after you’ve been outdoors.
- Stay away from damp areas, such as basements, and keep bathrooms and other mold-prone areas clean and dry.