What’s an allergy?

The job of your body’s immune system is to protect you from outside invaders, like viruses and bacteria. However, sometimes the immune system produces antibodies in response to something that isn’t harmful at all, such as certain foods or medications.

The immune system’s response to such a generally harmless irritant or allergen is called an allergic reaction. Most allergies aren’t severe, just annoying. Symptoms usually include itchy or watery eyes, sneezing, and a runny nose.

The only sure way to prevent a severe allergic reaction is to completely avoid your triggers. This may sound like a nearly impossible task, but there are a number of ways to reduce your risk. The steps you take to protect yourself depend on your type of allergy. The most common severe allergies are from:

  • insect bites and stings
  • food
  • medications

When you’re allergic to insect venom, outdoor activities can become more stressful than they should be. Here are some tips to help prevent bites and stings:

  • Avoid wearing fragrant perfumes, deodorants, and lotions.
  • Always wear shoes when walking outdoors.
  • Use a straw when drinking soda out of a can.
  • Avoid bright, patterned clothing.
  • Cover food when eating outside.

Always inform your doctor and pharmacist about any drug allergies you have. In the case of a penicillin allergy, you may be told to avoid similar antibiotics, such as amoxicillin (Moxatag). If the drug is necessary — for instance, CAT scan contrast dye — your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid or antihistamines before administering the drug.

Certain types of drugs are more likely to cause severe allergic reactions, including:

  • penicillin
  • insulin (especially from animal sources)
  • CAT scan contrast dyes
  • anticonvulsive drugs
  • sulfa drugs

Avoiding food allergens can be difficult if you don’t prepare everything you eat yourself.

When at a restaurant, ask detailed questions about ingredients in the food. Don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions.

When buying packaged food, read labels carefully. Most packaged foods now carry warnings on the label if they contain common allergens.

When eating at a friend’s house, be sure to tell them about any food allergies ahead of time.

Common food allergies

There are many common food allergens that can cause severe reactions in certain people. Some of these can be “hidden” as ingredients in foods, like:

  • milk
  • eggs
  • soy
  • wheat

Other foods can be dangerous due to the risk of cross-contamination. This is when foods come into contact with an allergen before consumption. Potential sources of cross-contamination include:

  • fish
  • shellfish
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that occurs immediately upon exposure to the allergen trigger. It affects the entire body. Histamines and other chemicals are released from various tissues throughout the body, causing dangerous symptoms like:

  • narrowed airways and difficulty breathing
  • sudden drop in blood pressure and shock
  • swelling of the face or tongue
  • vomiting or diarrhea
  • chest pain and heart palpitations
  • slurred speech
  • loss of consciousness

Risk factors

Though anaphylaxis is hard to predict, certain risk factors exist that may make a person more likely to experience a severe allergic reaction. These include:

Even if you’ve only had a severe reaction once, you’re more likely to experience anaphylaxis in the future.

Preventing a reaction is always best, but sometimes severe reactions happen despite our best efforts. Here are some ways to help yourself in the event of a severe allergic reaction:

  • Make sure friends and family know about your allergy, and what to do in an emergency.
  • Wear a medical ID bracelet listing your allergies.
  • Never participate in outdoor activities alone.
  • Carry an epinephrine auto-injector or bee sting kit at all times.
  • Put 911 on speed dial, and keep your phone on hand.