When Do Allergies Get Serious? What To Know About Allergies

Allergies can be a very urgent health issue. So, when do allergies get serious, and how can you treat them? Here's what to know

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January 30, 2020
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Allergies are often seen as a minor annoyance. However, for some people they are a matter of life or death. So what’s the difference? When do allergies become a series health issue, and why?

How Allergies Work

Your immune system is supposed to detect germs, attack the invaders, and clear them from your body. For people with allergies, that life-saving system breaks down. The immune system detects something harmless (like pollen in the air) and reacts as if the body is under attack. The antibodies created trigger the uncomfortable symptoms of allergies. In severe cases, allergies can be life-threatening.

What Can You Be Allergic To?

The medical literature shows that people have developed allergies to a wide variety of things. Sometimes it’s things that were ingested, like drugs or food. Other times, it’s things that are inhaled – these are the classic pollen, dust mites, and mold allergies that show up in so many medication commercials. Finally, people can get allergies from skin contact, for instance by touching certain metals or getting stung by insects.

Why Not Self-Diagnose?

Getting formally diagnosed by a medical professional is your first step if your allergies concern you. Don’t skip it, especially if you suspect your allergy is severe. If you self-diagnose, you might be treating the wrong problem or avoiding the wrong allergens. You could suffer from your allergies unnecessarily – a number of conditions can mimic the symptoms of allergies.

Medical professionals have the training and experience to be able to tell if you actually have allergies, and to what. Dr. Gregory Blomquist, Chief Medical Officer at CommunityMed urgent care clinic in Princeton, Texas, advises: “With any condition, it always pays to get diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible. If you want to rest assured your medical care is on the right track, always seek diagnosis and treatment by medical professionals.”

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Professional diagnosis can solve mysteries such as:

  • Is that patch of reddened skin eczema, or was it caused by a scratchy tag on your clothing?
  • Do you have trouble breathing due to pollen, or is it a deviated septum or a cold?
  • Is it a food allergy, or is it food poisoning from an improperly prepared and stored meal?
  • Do you have a runny nose and headache due to allergies or a sinus infection?
  • Are your symptoms side effects of another medication?

Minor vs. Serious Allergies

A minor allergic reaction may give you short term discomfort like:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Red, itchy eyes
  • Nausea that passes quickly
  • Minor rashes

Take that up a step and you have more serious or chronic discomfort including:

  • Difficulty sleeping due to stuffy nose
  • Skin rashes and eczema
  • Asthma

Finally, we get to the major health risk of severe allergies: anaphylactic shock, also called anaphylaxis.  This condition occurs within a few seconds to a few minutes of exposure to something you’re highly allergic to. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Swelling of the face, throat, and hands
  • Difficult breathing or breathing is cut off entirely
  • A weak pulse
  • Rashes
  • Nausea and vomiting

This condition requires immediate treatment with epinephrine and a visit to the emergency room. Anaphylaxis can be fatal if left untreated.

Are Some Allergens More Dangerous Than Others?

There are popular misconceptions around this topic. Certain allergens have gotten a lot of media attention after some people have had life-threatening reactions to them. For instance, some allergy sufferers are so highly allergic to peanuts that even being downwind of an open bag is enough to trigger anaphylaxis. However, many others are only mildly sensitive to peanuts. Their worst symptom might be a scratchy feeling in the throat after eating a handful.

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What Makes an Allergy Serious?

One key factor in how dangerous an allergen may be is how severely your immune system reacts to it. This can change over time, with some people developing allergies as adults. Others may have started out mildly allergic, but find their symptoms worsen after repeated exposure.

Another important piece of the puzzle is how common that allergen is. If you have a severe pollen allergy, you’re at greater risk than a relatively easy-to-avoid allergy such as to avocados. After all, unlike foods with peanut oil, avocados are rarely ‘hidden’ in other foods. You also probably won’t stumble across avocados or accidentally grab one.

Be proactive about avoiding your allergens. Get a replacement epi pen if you lose one. Don’t skip your immunotherapy shot appointments. Your condition is very manageable, but only if you put in the time and effort.

Once you know for sure that you have allergies, you can start preparing for potentially serious problems. This is often a two-pronged approach of prevention and treatment.

For prevention, work on reducing or avoiding contact with allergens. Come up with a plan for how you’ll avoid your allergy trigger, and what to do if a severe allergy strikes. Tell your loved ones what you’re allergic to, so they can help you keep an eye out for the allergen.

Treatment is best discussed with a medical professional. This may include prescription strength treatment or immunotherapy. If you aren’t a candidate for immunotherapy, look into medications and carry an epi pen around with you. A little diligence can go a long way to solving your allergy problems.