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What Are Allergies?


An allergy is an abnormal or exaggerated response of a person’s immune system to a substance in their environment which is generally a harmless substance. This substance (which can be, for example, animal dander, certain foods, dust, mold, and/or pollen) is called an allergen. The outward bodily manifestation of this abnormal or exaggerated response of a person’s immune system is commonly referred to as an allergic reaction.

Allergic Reactions

Why You Feel Bad

Normally, the immune system functions as the body’s defense against invading germs such as bacteria and viruses. In most allergic reactions, however, the immune system is responding to a false alarm. When an allergic person first comes into contact with an allergen, the immune system treats the allergen as an invader and gets ready to attack.

The immune system does this by generating large amounts of a type of antibody called immunoglobulin E, or IgE. Each IgE antibody is specific for one particular substance. In the case of pollen allergy, each antibody is specific for one type of pollen. For example, the immune system may produce one type of antibody to react against oak pollen and another against ragweed pollen.

The IgE molecules are special because IgE is the only type of antibody that attaches tightly to the body’s mast cells, which are tissue cells, and to basophils, which are blood cells. When the allergen next encounters its specific IgE, it attaches to the antibody like a key fitting into a lock. This action signals the cell to which the IgE is attached to release (and, in some cases, to produce) powerful chemicals like histamine, which cause inflammation. These chemicals act on tissues in various parts of the body, such as the respiratory system, and cause the symptoms of allergy.

Related conditions Often Caused by Allergies:


Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life threatening allergic reaction and can occur in response to any allergen.  The medical definition of anaphylaxis is a rapidly developing, systemic allergic reaction that is mediated by an antibody known as immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE is the “mediator” between the allergen attacking the body and the mast cell that the IgE is attached to, which triggers the release of histamine.

Allergic Conjunctivitis

There exists a clear, thin membrane called the conjunctiva which lines your eyeball and the inside of your eyelid. If something, such as an allergen, irritates this covering, your eyes may become red and swollen and may also itch, hurt, water or tear; the medical name for this condition is allergic conjunctivitis. Someone with allergic conjunctivitis (conjunctivitis caused by allergies) usually also has allergic rhinitis, or nasal symptoms, as well. Conjunctivitis can also be non-allergic caused by bacteria or viral infection, and is commonly known as “pink eye.”

Allergic Rhinitis

What many think of as nasal allergies or nasal allergy symptoms is medically known as allergic rhinitis. This is one of the most common allergic conditions, affecting about 35 million Americans. A runny, stuffy, or itchy nose and eyes, and sneezing are the cold-like symptoms of nasal allergies. But a virus causes a cold. These symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction to substances (airborne allergens) in your environment. This allergic reaction causes inflammation in your nasal tissue. And the inflammation is what plays a large role in causing your uncomfortable symptoms.

  • Seasonal Allergies
    • If your symptoms start or get worse at certain times of the year you may have seasonal allergic rhinitis. Pollen, grass, and weeds are often the cause of these types of seasonal, airborne allergies.
  • Year Round Allergies
    • If your symptoms are year-round, you may have perennial allergic rhinitis. Indoor allergens such as dust mites, mold, cockroaches, and animal dander are the most common causes of these types of year-round, airborne allergies.

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disorder of the airways with 2 main components: constriction (the tightening of the muscles around the airways) and inflammation (the swelling of the airways). Asthma is characterized by recurrent breathing problems and acute episodic attacks of shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness and coughing.

Nasal Polyps

Nasal polyps are non cancerous (benign) growths that develop on the lining of your nose and/or sinuses. Symptoms include difficulty breathing through your nose, runny nose.


Your sinuses are air-filled, hollow cavities around your nose, throat and nasal passages. When you get sinusitis, these passages become inflamed, and fluid accumulates and interferes with normal drainage of mucus in the sinuses. Untreated sinusitis may develop into a chronic condition. When symptoms last less than 4 weeks, it is considered “acute sinusitis.” When symptoms are recurring or last longer than 12 weeks consecutively, then it is considered “chronic sinusitis.” A common cause of sinusitis is allergies and common symptoms include facial pain and pressure especially in the cheeks, forehead, nose, temples, and behind the eyes, difficulty breathing through the nose, and nasal obstruction or congestion.

Allergy Facts and Figures

Fact or Myth? These allergy statistics are not only real and factual – but they’re shocking! Check them out:

  • Allergies can affect anyone
  • The allergic reactions you have are unique to you
  • Allergies can occur for the first time at any age, even though they are more common in children. Also, in some cases, allergies may recur after many years of remission.
  • Anaphylaxis is the most dangerous type of allergic reaction, and the least common
  • Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States and cost the healthcare system $18 billion annually.
  • About half of all Americans test positive for at least1 of the 10 most common allergens:
    • Ragweed
    • Bermuda grass
    • Rye grass
    • White oak
    • Russian thistle
    • Alternaria mold
    • Cat
    • House dust mite
    • German cockroach
    • Peanut
  • Food allergy occurs in 6 to 8 percent of children age 6 years or younger and in 2 percent of adults.
  • Common food allergens include:
    • Cow’s Milk
    • Eggs
    • Shellfish
    • Nuts
  • Peanuts and tree nuts are the leading causes of fatal and near-fatal food allergy reactions.
  • The prevalence of asthma is also high. For reasons that are still unclear, the prevalence of both allergy and asthma in the United States is increasing.
  • In 2005, 30 million people living in the United States had asthma, resulting in more than 480,000 hospitalizations and approximately 4,200 deaths.
  • In 2002, the asthma prevalence among non-Hispanic African Americans was approximately 30 percent higher than among non-Hispanic whites, and approximately double the level among Hispanics.
  • Among individual race/ethnic groups, Puerto Ricans have the highest levels of asthma prevalence and asthma attack prevalence.
Content Created/Medically Reviewed by our Expert Doctors
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