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Allergies: Key points

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  • Your body's immune system is designed to attack harmful substances, like bacteria and viruses. With allergies, your immune system attacks substances that are basically harmless -- such as pollen, mold, dust mites, pet dander, food, latex, and medications. Allergies can be caused by just about any substance that you inhale, swallow, or touch.

  • Allergies can cause a range of annoying symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy skin, and itchy eyes. Allergies can aggravate or trigger other conditions, such as asthma, sinusitis, and ear infections.

  • An allergist is a physician who specializes in allergies and asthma. An allergist can use to pinpoint what causes your allergies. The results of your allergy tests tell you what substances you need to avoid. For every allergen, there are specific steps you can take to reduce exposure to it.

  • If avoiding the allergen doesn't provide enough relief, consider medication. Antihistamines are one of the most common types of allergy medication. Nonprescription antihistamines may offer short-term relief, can cause drowsiness, and may blunt learning in children. A nonprescription nasal spray is available that does not have these effects. Prescription medications, too, generally have fewer of these unwanted effects.

  • Some people may want to consider allergy shots (immunotherapy). Over time, the shots may help your body get used to the substances that cause your allergies. However, allergy shots take a high level of commitment, usually for years. They also don't work for everyone.

  • Allergy shots can be used for most airborne allergens, including tree, grass, and weed pollens, mold spores, dust mites, and animal dander. Allergy shots can prevent severe sting reactions from honeybees, yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, or fire ants.

  • Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction involving the entire body. Causes include certain foods and insect stings. The body goes into shock, leading to a sharp drop in blood pressure, respiratory arrest, and possible heart failure.

  • If you've ever had a severe allergic reaction to something, wear a medical I.D. bracelet or necklace to alert emergency staff. Write an action plan and tell friends, family, and co-workers how to respond in case of emergency. Always carry an injectable epinephrine kit (such as EpiPen or Twinject) in case of a severe reaction.

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