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Allergies - Incidence and Prevalence

About 40 million people in the United States suffer from some type of indoor or outdoor allergy. Many allergy sufferers have more than one allergy.

An allergy is an abnormal immune response to a substance that does not cause a reaction in most people. Any substance that causes an allergic reaction is referred to as an allergen. When a person who is allergic comes in contact with an allergen, his or her immune system responds to the allergen as if it were a harmful substance, causing an allergic reaction.

Several different substances can cause allergies. Hay fever is a type of outdoor allergy caused by plant pollen (e.g., ragweed) in the air. Certain foods and medications also can cause allergies. In some cases, people develop allergies to substances that are present inside their homes. These types of allergies are called indoor allergies.

Common types of Allergens

  • Dust mite debris: Dust mites are microscopic creatures that thrive in warm, humid conditions. They exist in large numbers in bedding, such as pillows and mattresses. Dust mite waste products are a common allergen. These substances can build up over time within bedding materials and can be inhaled during sleep.

  • Pet dander: A protein in animal saliva is an allergen that triggers an immune response in people who have a pet allergy. This protein can be found on dead skin and hair debris from the pet and in the animal’s urine. This debris can become airborne in general house dust and then can be inhaled.

  • Cockroach debris: Cockroaches are difficult to fully exterminate in certain areas (e.g., in the southern United States, in large, older apartment buildings in urban areas). When cockroaches die, their bodies and waste products break down into small particles that can become airborne and can be inhaled.

  • Mold: Mold is a type of fungus that can grow on indoor as well as outdoor surfaces. Under the right conditions (e.g., damp, humid) within a home, mold can grow under flooring materials; behind walls; and on wood, sheet rock, or fabric. As it grows, mold produces spores that become airborne and can be inhaled.

The only way to prevent allergy symptoms is to avoid contact with allergens. Many products are available to help reduce allergens in the home; however, it is important to get as much information as possible before buying these products. For example, there are several home air-filtering systems available, but the quality of these systems varies greatly and comparing one system with another can be challenging.

An allergic reaction to food often called food allergies, can cause mild to serious symptoms such as:

Vomiting, Nausea, Stomach cramps, Indigestion, Diarrhea, Hives or skin rash, Headaches and Asthma.

Shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts are the most common food allergens for adults. Milk, eggs, soy, wheat, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts are the most common food allergens for children. The best defense against food allergies is to avoid foods that cause a reaction.

Cigarette smoke contains toxic chemicals that can further aggravate allergies and people with allergies may be more sensitive to these toxins than people who do not have allergies. Smoking should not be allowed in the home.

Insect stings are common causes of medical problems. Bees and wasps, together with fire ants, are all related insects that belong to the Hymenoptera order. Bee and wasp stings can cause significant reactions, ranging from localized pain and swelling to serious and even potentially fatal conditions. At least 40 deaths occur each year in the U.S. as a result of bee or wasp stings.

Allergic reactions can affect your nose, throat, eyes, lungs, skin, stomach or intestines. Rarely, they can affect the whole body. Whenever you are exposed to something you are allergic to, your body will trigger an allergic response again. That is why it's important to know what you are allergic to and take steps to treat or avoid a reaction.

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