Skip to main content

Mastering Common Allergies: Your Ultimate Guide to Relief

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedMay 29, 2024

Allergies, whether common or rare, have a significant impact on our daily lives. Over 100 million people in the US deal with various allergies each year, making allergies the sixth most common cause of chronic illness in the country.

The discomfort, inconvenience, and in some cases, life-threatening nature of allergies make them a topic of critical importance. However, finding concise, accurate, and actionable guidance can be daunting amidst the wealth of information available.

That is why we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide on common allergies. In the following sections, we will delve into the various types of common allergies, their causes, symptoms, and, most importantly, practical strategies for prevention and management.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • Approximately 81 million people in the US were diagnosed with hay fever in 2021, affecting adults and children alike.
  • Common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, wheat, fish, shellfish, and sesame.
  • Dust mite allergies are caused by proteins in the feces and body fragments of microscopic creatures called dust mites.
  • Even though some dog breeds are thought to be hypoallergenic, there isn't a true allergy-free breed, according to a study in 2011.
  • Allergic reactions to medications affect 5-10% of individuals, with common culprits being penicillin, sulfa drugs, anticonvulsants, and NSAIDs.
  • Treatment of allergies involves a combination of preventive measures and targeted treatments tailored to individual needs.
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Allergy treatment - Online visit
Get virtual care from a licensed clinician—no appointment needed
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • $29 one-time assessment
  • No video call or appointment necessary
  • Personalized treatment plan prescribed for your condition

Understanding An Allergic Reaction

When you have an allergy, encountering a specific trigger for the first time prompts your body to produce Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These IgE antibodies attach to allergy cells (mast cells) in your skin, airways, and the mucous membrane lining your digestive system.

The antibodies locate the allergens in your body and guide them to the mast cells, where they connect to a specific receptor. This triggers the release of histamine, responsible for your allergy symptoms.

5 Most Common Allergies

Allergies manifest in various forms, triggered by a wide array of substances. They can be seasonal or persist throughout the year and sometimes last a lifetime.

In this section, we will explore the most widespread allergies that impact individuals globally. Let’s get started!

1. Seasonal Allergies

Seasonal allergies, also called hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis, are allergic reactions that occur at specific times of the year. They are triggered by exposure to pollens from grasses, flowers, weeds, and trees that can lead to various uncomfortable symptoms.

What Are The Common Causes of Seasonal Allergies?

The primary cause of seasonal allergies is exposure to pollen from various plants and vegetation. Different types of pollen are prevalent throughout the year.

  • Spring - Trees such as birch, oak, and maple.
  • Summer - Grasses like Bermuda, Timothy, and Kentucky bluegrass.
  • Fall - Ragweed and molds like Alternaria, Aspergillus, Cladosporium, and Penicillium

💡 Did You Know?

In 2021, about 81 million individuals in the US were diagnosed with hay fever. Roughly 26% were adults and 19% were kids.

What Are The Symptoms of Seasonal Allergies?

Common symptoms of seasonal allergies include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Itchy sinuses, throat, or ear canals
  • Fatigue
  • Ear congestion
  • Postnasal drip

Less common symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

How To Manage Seasonal Allergies?

While completely avoiding allergens is challenging, you can implement measures to reduce your exposure:

  1. Stay informed about local pollen forecasts and plan outdoor activities accordingly. For example, during the spring and summer, the highest pollen counts occur in the evening, while in the late summer and fall, they occur in the morning. Maintain closed windows and doors to prevent allergens from entering your home.
  2. Use air purifiers with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters to trap airborne allergens inside your home.
  3. If you must be outdoors on high-pollen days, consider wearing a NIOSH-rated 95 filter mask or sunglasses to reduce exposure.

Recognize the patterns and triggers of seasonal allergies to take targeted steps in minimizing their impact.

2. Food Allergies

A food allergy is an adverse immune system reaction to a specific protein found in a particular food. This reaction leads to various allergic symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. In the US, 200,000 individuals require emergency medical attention every year due to allergic reactions to food.

What Causes Common Food Allergies?

While any food can potentially trigger an allergic reaction, some are more common culprits. The "Big Nine" allergenic foods are:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts
  • Soybeans
  • Wheat
  • Fish
  • Shellfish (with two main subgroups - crustacean allergy and mollusk allergy)
  • Sesame (recently added by the FDA)

Among these allergenic foods, shellfish is the most common food allergy in adults and the general population. Moreover, shellfish allergy is one of the leading causes of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, in both adults and children.

🎉 Fun Fact

As of January 1, 2023, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has included sesame as the 9th major food allergen under the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act of 2021. A federal law established the initial eight major food allergens passed in 2004.

What Are The Symptoms of Food Allergies?

Allergic reactions can appear in various ways, affecting the skin, stomach, heart, and breathing. They might include:

  • Vomiting and/or stomach cramps
  • Hives
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Repetitive cough
  • Shock or circulatory collapse
  • Tight, hoarse throat; trouble swallowing
  • Swelling of the tongue, affecting the ability to talk or breathe
  • Weak pulse
  • Pale or blue coloring of skin
  • Dizziness or feeling faint

Most symptoms of food allergies happen within 2 hours of eating. Sometimes they start in just a few minutes, and in very rare cases, the reaction might not occur until 4 to 6 hours later, or even longer.

How To Manage Food Allergies?

Food allergy tests can provide valuable information. However, if such tests aren't accessible, there are still effective ways to manage allergies, especially in infants and young children:

  1. Read food labels thoroughly.
  2. Those with severe allergies should have an epinephrine auto-injector and know how to use it.
  3. Consider using a “chef card” when eating out.
  4. Breastfeeding - Research indicates that infants from families with a significant history of food allergies experience improved outcomes when breastfed for the first six months.
  5. Introduce solids gradually - In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a study that says introducing solid foods to highly young infants might increase the risk of allergies. As a result, it advises against introducing solid foods to babies younger than 17 weeks.

Considering that 33 million Americans have food allergies, understanding the basics of this allergy is crucial for individuals with allergies and those around them.

3. Dust Mite Allergies

A dust mite allergy is a reaction to tiny bugs called dust mites. These microscopic, insect-like creatures feed on dead skin cells from humans and thrive in warm, damp environments.

The primary trigger for allergies is the proteins found in the mites' feces and body fragments, which become airborne and are inhaled.

🎉 Fun Fact

Dust mites can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Scientists have observed that Antarctica's harshly cold and dry conditions do not provide a suitable environment for dust mites.

What Are the Symptoms of a Dust Mite Allergy?

Common symptoms of a dust mite allergy include:

If your dust mite allergy triggers asthma, you might also encounter:

  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Feeling of tightness or discomfort in the chest
  • A whistling or wheezing sound while exhaling
  • Difficulty in falling asleep due to breathlessness, coughing, or wheezing.

How To Manage A Dust Mite Allergy?

You can make several adjustments in your home to lessen the presence of these unwelcome "guests."

  1. Encase mattresses and pillows with allergen-proof covers.
  2. Wash bed linens in hot water (above 130°F) to kill dust mites.
  3. Opt for hardwood floors or washable area rugs instead of wall-to-wall carpeting.
  4. Maintain humidity levels below 50%, which discourages dust mite growth.
  5. Regular vacuuming or cleaning.

Having dust mites doesn't mean your house isn't clean. These little creatures inhabit every home, no matter how tidy. However, you can minimize their impact.

4. Animal Allergies

An animal allergy, commonly called pet allergy, is an immune system's unfavorable response to proteins present in animals' skin cells, urine, and saliva. Allergies to dogs and cats impact 10%–20% of the global population, and this is becoming a growing public health concern as these numbers continue to rise.

📝 Note

Even though some breeds are considered hypoallergenic, there isn't a true allergy-free breed. A 2011 study examined dust samples from homes with species believed to be hypoallergenic, comparing them to homes with different breeds. The allergen levels in homes with presumed hypoallergenic breeds were similar to those in homes with other species.

What Are The Symptoms of Animal Allergies?

Individuals with pet allergies experience varying degrees of sensitivity to pet allergens. When allergen levels are low, symptoms might not manifest until several days after contact with the pet.

Symptoms of animal allergies may involve:

  • Itchy, red, and watery eyes
  • Sneezing and runny or stuffy nose
  • Skin rashes or hives
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • In severe cases, swelling of the face, including lips, tongue, or throat

How To Manage Animal Allergies?

Pets become cherished members of your family. If you can effectively manage your allergy, you may choose to keep your pet. Here are some strategies for handling pet allergens in your home:

  1. Keep your pet out of bedrooms or areas where people sleep.
  2. Prevent pets from getting on fabric furniture.
  3. Ask someone who doesn't have a pet allergy to brush the pet outdoors to remove fur.
  4. After your pet has been outside, wipe them down with pet-friendly wipes or towels to remove pollen and urine.
  5. Change your clothes and take a shower after spending time with an animal.
  6. Wash your hands and face after petting or handling the pet, its cage, or bedding.

Consulting a healthcare provider or allergist is crucial for tailored advice and treatment options. With the right approach, you can enjoy the companionship of your furry friends without compromising your well-being.

💡Did You Know?

Cat dander is the smallest dander. It's approximately one-tenth the size of a dust allergen, smaller than pollen, mold, dust mites, or any other animal dander. It's so tiny that when disturbed, it floats and can stay suspended for at least 30 minutes, sometimes even hours.

5. Drug Allergies

Like other allergic reactions, a drug allergy occurs when the body's immune system responds adversely to a medication. Responses to medications can vary widely from person to person.

What Are The Common Causes of Drug Allergies?

While all medications can have side effects, only 5-10% of adverse drug reactions are due to allergies. Some of the most common medications to cause allergic reactions are:

  • Penicillin and related antibiotics
  • Antibiotics containing sulfonamides (sulfa drugs)
  • Anticonvulsants such as carbamazepine, phenytoin, and lamotrigine
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Chemotherapy drugs

What Are The Symptoms of a Drug Allergy?

Drug allergy triggers an allergic response throughout the body. The typical symptoms of this kind of reaction include:

  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Rash and itching
  • Shortness of breath
  • Throat and mouth swelling
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cramping abdominal pain
  • Fall in blood pressure
  • Fainting

How To Manage Drug Allergies?

If you're aware of a drug allergy, the best way to avoid an allergic reaction is to steer clear of that specific drug. You might also be advised to stay away from similar medications.

In certain situations, a healthcare provider might allow using a drug that has previously caused an allergic reaction. However, they might administer another medication, such as an antihistamine, to dampen or block the immune response.

Diagnosis Of Common Allergies

To determine if you have an allergy, your healthcare provider will likely:

  • Ask detailed questions about signs and symptoms.
  • Conduct a physical examination.
  • Have you maintain a thorough diary of symptoms and potential triggers.

For food allergies, your provider will probably:

  • Request a detailed record of the foods you consume.
  • Inquire if you've stopped drinking the suspected food during the allergy assessment.

Your provider may also suggest one or both of the following tests. However, it's important to note that these allergy tests can sometimes provide incorrect results.

  • Skin test - Small amounts of common allergen proteins will be pricked into your skin.

Photo shows an example of skin prick testing

Source: The Allergy Clinic

  • Blood test - Specific IgE (sIgE) blood testing, often known as radioallergosorbent test (RAST) or ImmunoCAP testing, measures the levels of allergy-triggering antibodies in your bloodstream.

If your provider suspects your issues are unrelated to an allergy, additional tests may be recommended to identify or rule out other medical conditions.

Treatment Of Common Allergies

Allergies involve a combination of preventive measures and targeted treatments. Here are some effective treatments:

  • Avoidance of allergens: Your provider will assist you in identifying and avoiding your allergy triggers. This is typically the most crucial step in preventing allergic reactions and alleviating symptoms.
  • Antihistamines: Over-the-counter antihistamines like cetirizine, loratadine, and fexofenadine can help alleviate symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, and itching. Non-drowsy options are available for daytime relief.
  • Nasal Corticosteroids: These prescription or over-the-counter nasal sprays, such as fluticasone and mometasone, reduce inflammation in the nasal passages.
  • Decongestants: Pseudoephedrine, an oral decongestant, can ease nasal congestion but should be used cautiously, especially for those with high blood pressure, under professional guidance.
  • Allergy Shots (Immunotherapy): This treatment involves gradually exposing the individual to increasing allergens, helping the immune system build tolerance over time.
  • Eye Drops: For itchy or watery eyes, over-the-counter or prescription antihistamine eye drops can provide relief from allergy-related symptoms.
  • Nasal Irrigation: A saline rinse can clear allergens and mucus from nasal passages, easing congestion and related symptoms.
  • Emergency epinephrine: If you have severe allergies, it's essential always to have an emergency epinephrine shot on hand.

Seeking Medical Help

People with allergies might get used to common symptoms like sneezing, stuffy nose, or wheezing. With their specialized training, an allergist can develop a customized treatment strategy tailored to your circumstances.

The aim is to help you lead a life that's as normal and symptom-free as possible. You should see an allergist if:

  • Your allergies manifest as symptoms such as persistent sinus infections, nasal congestion, or breathing difficulties.
  • You encounter hay fever or other allergy symptoms for several months each year.
  • Over-the-counter medications and antihistamines don't effectively manage your allergy symptoms or have undesirable side effects like drowsiness.
  • Your day-to-day activities are being affected by your asthma or allergies.
  • Your asthma or allergies are impacting your overall quality of life.
  • You're noticing warning signs of severe asthma.

Final Words

Allergies are a widespread concern, impacting millions globally. Understanding allergies and their triggers is essential for effectively managing and alleviating symptoms.

Allergic reactions can range from seasonal discomfort to severe reactions to food, dust mites, animals, and medications. Taking proactive measures, seeking professional guidance, and implementing tailored strategies can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals with allergies.

By being informed and proactive, one can lead a fulfilling life while minimizing the impact of allergies. Consulting a healthcare provider or allergist is essential for personalized advice and treatment options.

FAQs on Common Allergies

Can allergies be inherited?

Yes, allergies can have a genetic component. If either or both parents have allergies, there is a heightened probability that their children may also develop them.

Can allergies develop at any age?

Yes, allergies can develop at any age. Some people may develop allergies in childhood, while others may develop them in adulthood.

What is a common skin condition often linked to common allergies?

Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a common skin condition often linked to allergies.

Do common allergies affect mental health?

Yes, living with chronic allergies can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression. Managing allergies effectively can improve overall well-being.

Can common allergies lead to sinus infections?

Yes, chronic allergies can lead to inflammation in the sinuses, making individuals more susceptible to sinus infections.

Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Allergy treatment - Online visit
Get virtual care from a licensed clinician—no appointment needed
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • $29 one-time assessment
  • No video call or appointment necessary
  • Personalized treatment plan prescribed for your condition