It sometimes seems like everyone is allergic to something, but they’re all different. What are the most common things to be allergic to — and how can you find out what triggers you?
It seems these days that more and more people are finding themselves allergic to something — gluten, peanuts, pet dander, and so on. However, it is important to differentiate between an allergy and an intolerance, particularly when it comes to food.
An allergic reaction is one that causes the immune system to generate histamines and can lead to anaphylaxis — a severe allergic reaction that can lead to death if not treated quickly.
An intolerance doesn’t involve the immune system whatsoever. Yes, if you’re lactose intolerant, drinking milk is going to give you horrible gas and probably diarrhea. But you’re not having an allergic reaction — your immune system doesn’t get involved. Your body just doesn’t like milk.
Here are some of the more common allergies, broken into categories.
Peanuts and tree nuts are the leading cause of severe food allergic reactions, with even tiny amounts having the potential to cause almost immediate swelling of the throat and anaphylaxis.
If you or someone in your family is this allergic, an epinephrine auto-injector (commonly known by the brand name EpiPen) should always be close at hand.
Environmental allergens, indoors & outdoors
There are also things found all over the place that can cause sniffles, sneezes and watery eyes (allergic rhinoconjunctivitis) and more extensive allergic reactions. Some of the most common environmental allergens:
Pollen (grass and weed pollen, like ragweed, sagebrush, pigweed and tumbleweed; tree pollen including maple, birch, cedar and oak)
Outdoor allergens are ones you experience just by being outside — especially from pollens. The EPA says that hay fever accounting for more than 13 million visits to physicians’ offices and other medical facilities every year.
One of the most common environmental allergens is ragweed (pictured below), which can cause hay fever and trigger asthma attacks, especially in children and the elderly.
The World Allergy Organization Journal has a few suggestions for avoiding pollens — starting with finding out when pollen season (or seasons) peaks in your area. Pollen.com is a good place to check.
Then you will know when to avoid extended outdoor activities; can protect your face with closed-visor helmets when biking or motorcycling; can be sure to keep the car windows rolled up while driving; and also just stay inside with the doors and windows closed on windy days and during thunderstorms.
Iodinated x-ray contrast dyes (used to improve the visibility of body structures for x-ray or CT scans)
By and large, the most common drug allergy is to penicillin and other related antibiotics, with sulfa antibiotics being a fairly distant runner-up.
How do I know if I have allergies?
Disclaimer: We aren’t doctors. Consult with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
If your allergies are seriously affecting your life, and popping an over-the-counter antihistamine just isn’t cutting it, perhaps it’s time to consider finding out what is causing you so much distress so you can avoid it or treat it properly.
The only true way to know is to see your healthcare provider and ask to have an allergy test performed.
No, you don’t need to study, bring a number two pencil, or fill in any little bubbles. However, courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine, here’s some suggested reading before you go talk to your doc.
Types of testing
To summarize, there are four basic kinds of allergy testing:
Skin tests: These are the most common. The most common of the skin tests is the prick test. (Stop laughing.) This test involves putting a small amount of a suspected allergen on the skin, then pricking the skin so the allergen can get under the skin’s surface. Several allergens can be tested at the same time.
Elimination tests: Used to check for food allergies. Foods that may be causing symptoms are removed from the diet for several weeks and then slowly re-introduced one at a time while the person is watched for signs of an allergic reaction.
Blood tests: Exactly what you’d think. “Dr Acula” draws some blood and then drinks measures the number of antibodies to a specific allergen.
Provocation testing: This is where you are exposed to a suspected allergen under controlled conditions and monitored for a response. Although this sounds like something you can do at home, please, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. It can provoke severe reactions. You’re unlikely to have epinephrine on hand in the event you go into anaphylaxis and your throat closes up.
Keep in mind, allergy testing is not the complete solution. False positives and negatives can be generated, and you may find what you’re allergic to isn’t something that can easily avoided.
However, armed with knowledge, you can make choices that should be able to ease your suffering and get you thinking about investing in something other than tissue manufacturers.
Much more information about allergy testing can be found online. You can start with the article About allergy tests from the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), and What is allergy testing? from the similarly-named American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI).