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By Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe

Chief Executive Officer

Here’s what you need to know about allergies

If you have allergies, make sure you have an emergency strategy, and seek immediate medical assistance for severe reactions.

Allergies, a widespread medical concern, stem from the intricate workings of our immune system. When the immune system reacts defensively to a foreign substance, it can lead to a range of symptoms, from minor discomfort to severe and life-threatening.

The immunological response: unravelling allergies

Allergies are essentially the result of an immune system that’s too vigilant. When it encounters a foreign substance, often referred to as an allergen, it produces antibodies as a defence mechanism. These antibodies are meant to identify and neutralise harmful invaders.

However, in the case of allergies, the immune system mistakenly perceives typically harmless substances as threats. This exaggerated response sets off a chain reaction, leading to various symptoms that can affect the skin, sinuses, airways, or digestive system.

Young woman sneezing from an allergy. Picture: iStock
Young woman sneezing from an allergy. Picture: iStock

The spectrum of allergic responses

The severity of allergic reactions can vary significantly from person to person, from mild irritation to life-threatening emergencies.

Mild allergic reactions: In many cases, allergies result in sneezing, itching or a runny nose. While these symptoms are not life-threatening, they can be persistent and disruptive.

Moderate allergic reactions: Some individuals may experience more moderate symptoms, including skin irritations like hives or eczema. These can be uncomfortable but are usually manageable.

Severe allergic reactions: Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention. It can affect multiple body systems and lead to shock, loss of consciousness and death if not treated immediately with epinephrine, followed by a visit to the emergency department for further evaluation and care.

Arms covered in blisters from allergy. Picture: iStock
Arms covered in blisters from allergy. Picture: iStock

Common allergies

Hay fever (allergic rhinitis): Sneezing, itchy nose, eyes or roof of the mouth, runny or stuffy nose, watery, red or swollen eyes (conjunctivitis).

Food allergies: Tingling in the mouth, swelling of the lips, tongue, face or throat, hives (raised, itchy welts on the skin), anaphylaxis.

Insect stings: A large area of swelling (edema) at the sting site, itching or hives all over the body, cough, chest tightness, wheezing or shortness of breath, anaphylaxis.

Drug allergies: Hives, itchy skin, rash, facial swelling, wheezing, anaphylaxis.

Atopic dermatitis (eczema): Itching, redness, flaking or peeling of the skin, anaphylaxis (rare). Certain allergies, particularly food and insect sting allergies have the potential to trigger anaphylaxis, the most severe form of allergic reaction.

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Seeking professional help

While many individuals manage their allergies with over-the-counter medications, there are instances when consulting a healthcare provider becomes necessary. If you experience symptoms you suspect are caused by an allergy and non-prescription allergy medications don’t provide sufficient relief, it’s advisable to seek professional medical guidance.

If you develop symptoms after starting a new medication, particularly if they resemble an allergic reaction, contact the healthcare provider who prescribed the medication. They can assess the situation and recommend appropriate actions.

Woman using eyedrops for allergy. Picture: iStock
Woman using eyedrops for allergy. Picture: iStock

Managing anaphylaxis

Call for help: Dial 112 without delay.

Administer epinephrine: If you have an epinephrine auto-injector (commonly known as EpiPen or Auvi-Q), use it immediately as directed. It can help reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Seek medical attention: Even if the epinephrine injection seems to alleviate symptoms, proceed to the emergency room for further evaluation. Anaphylaxis can have a delayed or recurrent phase which needs to be monitored closely.

Long-term management of allergies

Allergies and anaphylaxis can be complex conditions, and you may benefit from specialised care.

Allergy testing: Healthcare providers who specialise in allergies and immunology can conduct comprehensive allergy testing to identify specific allergens that trigger your symptoms. This information is crucial for developing an effective management plan.

Allergen avoidance: Once allergens are identified, healthcare providers can offer guidance on allergen avoidance strategies. This may involve dietary adjustments, lifestyle changes or environmental modifications.

Medications: Depending on the nature and severity of your allergies, healthcare providers may prescribe medications to manage symptoms. These can include antihistamines, corticosteroids, or allergy shots (immunotherapy).

Emergency action plan: If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis, your healthcare provider will help you create an emergency action plan. This plan outlines the steps to take in case of an allergic reaction and includes guidance on using epinephrine auto-injectors.

Regular follow-ups: Managing allergies often requires ongoing monitoring and adjustments to your treatment plan. Regular follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider are essential to ensure your allergies are well managed. In conclusion, allergies are a complex medical phenomenon rooted in our immune system’s response to foreign substances. While most allergies cannot be cured, they can be effectively managed with proper medical guidance and intervention. It’s crucial to seek professional help if you suspect allergies, especially if you’ve experienced severe reactions in the past. With the right approach, individuals with allergies can lead healthy and fulfilling lives, minimising the impact of allergic reactions on their well-being.

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