Symptoms of Allergies
Allergy symptoms vary from a runny nose to an itchy rash or even to a life-threatening asthma attack or anaphylactic reaction. An allergy is an abnormal reaction by a person’s immune system to a normally harmless substance (an allergen). A person without allergies would have no reaction to this substance, but when a person who is allergic encounters the trigger, the body reacts by releasing chemicals which cause allergy symptoms. These chemicals affect the skin, respiratory system, digestive tract, and more to produce allergy symptoms.
In children, allergic disease first occurs as atopic dermatitis (eczema) or food allergies. Children with atopic dermatitis are then at an increased risk of developing allergic rhinitis and asthma; both are more likely to occur in school-age children.
Typically, atopic dermatitis goes away by adulthood, as do many types of food allergies. Allergic rhinitis and asthma, however, most often start during the adolescent, teenage, and young adult years, and are likely to persist throughout a person’s life. The severity of allergic symptoms, however, may wax and wane, and even temporarily disappear.
Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is typically the first sign of allergies and is seen in 10 to 20 percent of all children, frequently during infancy. It is characterized by itching, with rash formation at the sites of scratching. The rash is typically red and dry, may have small blisters, and can flake and ooze over time.
In infants and very young children, this rash involves the face (especially the cheeks), chest and trunk, back of the scalp, and may involve the arms and legs. This distribution reflects where the child is able to scratch, and therefore usually spares the diaper area. The location of the rash changes in older children and adults to classically involve the skin in front of the elbows and behind the knees. Food and environmental allergies have been shown to worsen atopic dermatitis.
Food allergies can occur at any age. Almost all people with food allergies will have a skin symptom as a result of eating the culprit food. These symptoms typically occur within a few minutes of eating the food in question, although they can be delayed up to several hours. Skin symptoms may include:
- Redness of the skin
Other symptoms of food allergies can include:6
- Stomach aches
- Breathing difficulties (asthma symptoms)
- Runny nose
In some cases, children can experience a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening.
Allergic rhinitis, including hay fever and seasonal allergies, occurs in up to 30 percent of adults and up to 40 percent of children. Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy nose and eyes
- Nasal congestion
Some people may also experience post-nasal drip, allergic shiners (dark circles under the eyes), and a line across the nasal bridge from an upward rubbing of the palm of the hand on the nose, a sign called the “allergic salute.” The tissues of the sinuses can also be swollen in an allergic reaction, which can result in pressure inside the head and produce a sinus headache. Another symptom of nasal allergies can be fatigue from disrupted sleep.
Some skin allergy symptoms are triggered when your skin comes in contact with an irritant or allergen. Common triggers include nickel, latex, fragrances, poison ivy, hair products, and skin medications. You may experience these skin symptoms:9
You won’t usually have the reaction the first time you come into contact with the allergen. But on a future exposure, you will have symptoms.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that can be triggered by exposure to many different substances (allergens). The most common allergies that can produce anaphylaxis are to drugs, insects stings, foods, and latex.
The most common symptoms of anaphylaxis are:
- Swelling of the face, tongue, lips, throat, or limbs
- Breathing problems including coughing, wheezing, and difficulty taking a breath
- Low blood pressure, which may lead to confusion or dizziness
Other symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, cramping, or headaches.
If you are experiencing symptoms of anaphylaxis, it is a medical emergency. Call your country’s emergency line and use an epinephrine injector if you have one. The symptoms can progress rapidly and can be fatal.
Allergies can contribute to developing or worsening other conditions.
Allergies are a major cause of asthma, a condition that occurs in about 8 percent of all people. Though it can occur at any age, it is most often seen in males in the pre-teen years and in females in the teenage years; asthma is the most common chronic disease in children and young adults. Sometimes asthma is difficult to diagnose in very young children and may require a physician who is an asthma specialist.
Symptoms of asthma may include:
- Coughing: This can be the only symptom in some people who have “cough-variant asthma.” The cough is often dry, hacking, and may be worse with allergic triggers and after exercise. The cough may only be present at night. Cold air may also trigger this symptom.
- Wheezing : This is a high-pitched, musical-like sound that can occur with breathing in and out in people with asthma. Wheezing usually occurs along with other asthma symptoms may get worse with exercise and with allergic triggers.
- Shortness of breath: Most people with asthma feel as if they’re not getting enough air at times, particularly when they are physically exerting themselves or when an allergic trigger is present. People with more severe asthma have shortness of breath at rest or wake-up with this symptom during the night.
- Chest tightness: Some people describe this as a sensation that someone is squeezing or hugging them. Children may say that their chest hurts or feels “funny.”
Many people with asthma have symptoms with exercise; this does not necessarily mean that their asthma is severe or uncontrolled.
Nasal Allergy Complications
Nasal allergies can put you at more risk of developing respiratory infections, including lung infections, sinus infections, sinusitis,14 and middle ear infections (otitis media and otitis media with effusion). Hearing impairment can result. You may also develop nasal polyps, which are growths in the sinuses or nasal lining. Migraine headaches are also associated with allergies.
When nasal allergies impair sleep, you can have daytime fatigue and poor mental functioning. The medications prescribed can likewise have effects on performance.
Over-the-counter medications used to treat allergy symptoms can be unsafe to take if you are being treated for a variety of health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, and more. If you are under treatment for any condition, talk to your doctor before you begin taking an allergy remedy. It may interact with prescription medications or worsen your condition.
When to See a Doctor
If you are unable to control your allergies with occasional use of over-the-counter medications, see your doctor. You should also see a doctor if your symptoms are impairing your quality of life, reducing productivity at work or school, or disturbing your sleep.
Allergy symptoms in children and older people should always be checked by their physician so appropriate medications can be used, including those available without a prescription, and dangerous interactions avoided.
Allergy symptoms can range from annoying to life-threatening. Ongoing symptoms don’t have to simply be tolerated. See your doctor or an allergy specialist so you can learn how to avoid allergy triggers and which medications will most improve your quality of life.
- Ring J, Beyer K, Biedermann T, et al. Guideline for acute therapy and management of anaphylaxis: S2 Guideline of the German Society for Allergology and Clinical Immunology (DGAKI), the Association of German Allergologists (AeDA), the Society of Pediatric Allergy and Environmental Medicine (GPA), the German Academy of Allergology and Environmental Medicine (DAAU), the German Professional Association of Pediatricians (BVKJ), the Austrian Society for Allergology and Immunology (ÖGAI), the Swiss Society for Allergy and Immunology (SGAI), the German Society of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine (DGAI), the German Society of Pharmacology (DGP), the German Society for Psychosomatic Medicine (DGPM), the German Working Group of Anaphylaxis Training and Education (AGATE) and the patient organization German Allergy and Asthma Association (DAAB). Allergo J Int. 2014;23(3):96–112. doi:10.1007/s40629-014-0009-1
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