When you think of an allergy and an allergic reaction, you probably envision someone covered in red, itchy hives or unable to breathe due to anaphylactic shock. While these symptoms represent a true and extreme allergic reaction, you can still be sensitive to allergens of all kinds and experience a range of symptoms. An allergist is your best bet if you suspect that you may have an allergy or a sensitivity to an allergen.
This specialist will figure out what triggers your symptoms and if you need medication to manage the symptoms. For some, medication is the only way to navigate through the symptoms. For others it may be a combination of avoiding triggers and/or medication. For people who go into anaphylactic shock or develop hives rapidly, medication and avoidance of a trigger is the only way.
Here’s how to manage allergic reactions and symptoms with medication, and when to know that medication is necessary.
Mild symptoms, seasonal symptoms, or easily avoidable triggers
Maybe you sniffle or sneeze when you come into contact with your neighbor’s dog or cat. Maybe you itch when you touch a mohair (goat wool) sweater or blanket. When you move away and aren’t in contact with these things, you are fine.
Mild symptoms include sneezing, itchy skin, scratchy throat, watery or itchy eyes, runny or congested nose, and possibly a rash that goes away on its own. Your body may only develop one or two symptoms, or it may develop a reaction with full gusto and include all of these symptoms. The mild reactions only last as long as you are exposed to the trigger/allergen.
Most allergy doctors, once they have diagnosed you, will tell you that these symptoms are very mild and very manageable. Whatever the common or uncommon trigger or allergen is, you can just stay away from it. This also includes foods that cause stomach upset, including dairy, nuts, and gluten (found in processed flour and foods made from processed flour, such as pasta and bread).
If there is no possible way for you to avoid the allergen completely (for example, dust that accumulates daily or grass pollen outside), your doctor will prescribe a medication. Most of the time the medication is an antihistamine that tells your body it shouldn’t create a histamine reaction to the allergen. Some antihistamines can make you very sleepy while others make you more alert.
Talk to your doctor about when to take the medication and what to take if you want to avoid the side effects of being wide awake or very sleepy.
Multiple reactions to several allergens
When you find yourself physically reacting to multiple allergens that cannot be avoided, your allergy doctor might suggest a different course of treatment. This comes in the form of allergy exposure over time, using a small amount of the diagnosed allergy. The doctor injects it into your system and allows your body to react slowly to the injected allergen.
In this way, your body begins to recognize the allergen as something that is regularly present in your system. The shots help your body adjust to the allergen and stop producing histamine in response to the allergen. Over time the shots lessen the effect of your reaction to the allergen.
In some patients this exposure treatment ends up curing them of the allergic reaction entirely. In others, it just lessens the reaction to a really mild case of symptoms that you can live with. The results are different for everyone, but if you have multiple reactions to several allergens the shots could be the way to make your symptoms and your life more manageable.
The alternatives, of course, are prescription pills and/or inhalers. The side effects of these medications are not always the best for people who experience more intense or more frequent symptoms as the medications are slow to work and leave patients uncomfortable for a short while. It all depends on the environmental allergens to which you develop a reaction and how frequently you are exposed and have to live with your symptoms when determining the best course of treatment.
Extreme reactions and multiple allergens
Patients who develop life-threatening reactions to allergens and who have multiple allergens to worry about need an epi-pen. An allergy doctor will prescribe an epi-pen to those who really need it, but the epi-pens are highly controlled substances that are only doled out one at a time. When epi-pens are used correctly under life-threatening circumstances, they can save a life.
If used at any other time, they can take a life because the epinephrine increases adrenaline, elevates blood pressure and heart rate, and can cause unwanted and potentially dangerous side effects. Patients with extreme allergies who might be exposed to their allergens in daily life have to carry the epi-pen with them all the time. Once used, patients need to see a doctor after the fact to verify that they are alright, and to have the epi-pen prescription refilled.
For this reason, patients with extreme allergic reactions may also benefit from exposure therapy via the allergy shots. Since the process is done in tiny injectable amounts in a doctor’s office where a patient can be monitored for a reaction and treated if necessary, it makes it a very safe treatment option. The allergy doctor injects the tiniest amount of allergen into your system and then waits and watches how your body responds.
This treatment continues over several weeks or months always increasing incrementally the amount of injectable allergen to which you are exposed. If and when successful, patients who had to rely on their epi-pens for their safety and protection find that they no longer need to rely on the epi-pens for certain allergens. It’s an option you should thoroughly discuss with your allergy specialist.
Long-term management of allergic reactions
You could easily manage your allergies and allergic reactions for the rest of your life with medications. Most people would probably prefer not to, if they could. The good news is that these allergy shots do offer long-term management solutions.
Once you have received the build-up and immunity response shots, you will begin the second phase of treatment that involves maintenance. Basically what this phase of treatment does is that it puts your body in a sort of allergy ‘stasis’ or ‘alert’ mode. Your body receives a maintenance shot, recognizes the allergen, but then accepts the allergen as something normal rather than something to react to.
Without the maintenance shots it is likely that your body would gradually regress to a state where it doesn’t recognise the allergen as something ‘normal’ and begins once again to react to the allergen. This is why you will need maintenance shots if you choose this treatment. However, a lot of patients that have chosen the allergy shots find that they need pills, inhalers, and/or epi-pens less and less.
Wanting to try the allergy shots?
No matter what level of allergic reaction or allergen sensitivity you have, you could try the allergy shots. Not every doctor does them, and not every insurance plan will cover them. You will have to ask your doctor and your insurance company if you can try this course of treatment and whether or not they will provide and pay for the shots.
David Tobin did his degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in mental health and well-being.
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