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Allergies

What's the Problem?

Allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. with an annual cost in excess of $18 billion. More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year.

Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to substances that generally do not affect other individuals. These substances, or allergens, can cause sneezing, coughing, and itching. Allergic reactions range from merely bothersome to life-threatening. Some allergies are seasonal, like hay fever. Allergies have also been associated with chronic conditions like sinusitis and asthma.

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Who's at Risk?

Anyone may have or develop an allergy - from a baby born with an allergy to cow's milk, to a child who gets poison ivy, to a senior citizen who develops hives after taking a new medication.

Can It Be Prevented?

Allergies can generally not be prevented but allergic reactions can be. Once a person knows they are allergic to a certain substance, they can avoid contact with the allergen. Strategies for doing this include being in an air-conditioned environment during peak hay-fever season, avoiding certain foods, and eliminating dust mites and animal dander from the home. They can also control the allergy by reducing or eliminating the symptoms. Strategies include taking medication to counteract reactions or minimize symptoms and being immunized with allergy injection therapy.

The Bottom Line

  • The most common allergic diseases include: hay fever, asthma, conjunctivitis, hives, eczema, dermatitis and sinusitis.
  • Food allergies are most prevalent in young children and are frequently outgrown.
  • Latex allergies are a reaction to the proteins in latex rubber, a substance used in gloves, condoms and other products.
  • Bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, and fire ants can cause insect sting allergies.
  • Allergies to drugs, like penicillin, can affect any tissue or organ in the body.

Anaphylaxis is the most severe allergic reaction. Symptoms include flush; tingling of the palms of the hands, soles of the feet or lips; light-headedness, and chest-tightness. If not treated, these can progress into seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, shock, and respiratory distress. Anaphylaxis can result in death. Food, latex, insect sting, and drug allergies can all result in anaphylaxis.

  • Page last reviewed: February 2, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 2, 2011
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