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Allergies are classified as hypersensitivity disorders of the immune system. Most commonly, allergic reactions happen when someone is exposed to allergens that are generally harmless environmental substances. In many cases, allergic reactions are mild to moderate and do not pose a significant threat to one's overall wellbeing. In some situations, however, allergic reactions may be life-threatening.

Allergy Symptoms

Allergic reactions are characterized by an excessive response of the white blood cells called basophils and mast cells to an antibody known as Immunoglobulin E, or IgE. IgE causes the immune system to respond when it binds to the surface of basophils and mast cells. An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system overreacts to this occurrence causing an extreme inflammatory response. Typical reactions include hives, allergic conjunctivitis, asthma attacks, itchiness, runny nose, and other symptoms. Some people may also experience major allergic reactions to environmental allergens and certain foods or medications that may result in anaphylactic reactions that can be life-threatening.

Allergies are highly prevalent in the human population and commonly cause a group of symptoms that are generally mild. These symptoms are caused by the release of histamine by the mast cells in response to the presence of IgE. Histamine irritates nerve endings, dilation of blood vessels, and increased tear production. In many cases, these symptoms can be managed with prescription or over-the-counter antihistamines that stabilize the mast cells. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, have proven to be safe and effective for treating inflammation caused by allergic reactions.

Diagnosing Allergies

Doctors diagnose allergies in numerous ways. One of the most common methods is the allergy skin test. In this test, the patient is exposed to small amounts of various allergens, and the doctor observes how the patient's body responds. If there is a reaction, the patient is typically allergic to that particular allergen. Prick tests where small, diluted amounts of allergens are injected into the skin are also commonly used for diagnostic purposes. In some cases, blood tests may conduct to detect the presence of IgE that is specifically known allergens. When food and medication allergies are suspected, patients may be given suspected allergens orally or through inhalation. Because these tests can cause severe allergic reactions, they are rarely used and must be administered under the close supervision of a doctor.

Treating Allergies

Allergy treatment depends on the type and severity of the reaction. Many patients can manage their symptoms through medication or by simply avoiding certain allergens. Some patients may also be immunized to a particular allergen through immunotherapy procedures where they are gradually exposed to increasing amounts of an allergen until sensitivity is eliminated. With treatment, most allergies can be managed, and severe reactions can be avoided.