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Published on October 9, 2023

Understanding Skin Allergies: Causes, Symptoms, and Triggers

Every sneeze, every itch, and every red rash on your skin is your body’s way of signaling an intruder. But what happens when the body mistakes a harmless substance for a threat? 

The immune system is designed to protect the body from harmful pathogens and substances. When it detects foreign proteins, called allergens, it triggers a cascade of immune responses. It then produces antibodies like immunoglobin E (IgE). These antibodies cause the release of histamine and other chemicals, leading to common allergy symptoms.

While some allergic reactions are mere nuisances, others can be life-threatening. Some experience continuous sneezing or itchiness, but others feel their throats close up. Let’s delve into the spectrum of allergy severity so we know how to prevent and react to different allergic reactions.

The Spectrum of Allergy Severity

Allergies are among the country’s most common diseases, often overlooked. Over 100 million people in the U.S. experience various types of allergies each year, making allergies the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. [Source: AAFA]

With over 100 million Americans affected annually, the manifestations of allergies can range from a simple sneeze to a full-blown medical emergency. But what exactly are these symptoms, and how do they vary based on the allergen involved?

Symptoms of Allergies Based on the Substance Involved

  • Allergic Rhinitis causes sneezing, an itchy and runny nose, congestion, and itchy, red, or watery eyes. This is usually triggered by airborne allergens like pollen, dust mites, mold spores, pet dander, etc.

These allergens are very common in our environment so allergic rhinitis is just as common as a reaction. There are five types of rhinitis and it is estimated that over 19 million U.S. adults are diagnosed with allergic rhinitis each year. [Source: AAFA]

  • Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema) is just one of the different types of skin allergies. It leads to reddened, irritated, extremely itchy, and flaky skin. Weeping and crusting may occur in severe cases. Eczema usually affects the face, inside of elbows, and backs of knees in children, while adults have eczema outbreaks on hands and feet. About 8 million children in the U.S. were diagnosed with eczema in 2021. [Source: AAFA]

The problem with eczema is that there are no tests to determine if you have it. You can still take a skin allergy test to help determine any triggers if you suspect that you have it. But it’s best to check with your doctor so they can diagnose and recommend you take other tests.

  • Food Allergies lead to tingling, itching, or swelling of lips, tongue, mouth, and throat. It can also lead to hives, eczema or rashes, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Additionally, researching the difference between hives vs rash alongside the various symptoms mentioned is essential to help accurately treat and manage allergies.

That’s not all: respiratory symptoms like nasal congestion or wheezing, and anaphylaxis. Yearly, the US gets almost 90, 000 emergency room visits due to anaphylaxis from food allergies. [Source: AAFA] 

  • An Insect Sting Allergy can cause localized swelling and itching at the sting site but that’s only a mild reaction. There can also be hives and large swelling elsewhere on the body, leading to anaphylaxis.
  • Drug Allergies manifest as hives, itchy rash, facial swelling, wheezing, and anaphylaxis. The antibiotics known as penicillin and sulfa cause most allergic reactions to medications.

Reactions to drugs aren’t always allergic reactions which is why they’re divided into two categories. There are non-allergic reactions and true allergic reactions. True allergic reactions are rare but it’s safer to check with an allergist than not go at all.

While many experience mild symptoms, there’s a severe allergic reaction that demands immediate attention and can be life-threatening: anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis: A Severe Allergic Reaction

Anaphylaxis causes blood pressure to drop rapidly leading to shock, loss of consciousness, wheezing, trouble breathing, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, or dizziness. Rash, itching, and swollen lips, face, or throat may also occur. This reaction is considered a medical emergency that can be fatal if not treated promptly. 

Medicines, food, and insect stings are the most common triggers for anaphylaxis. Medicines account for the majority of allergy-related deaths, with Black individuals and older adults in the U.S. having the highest rates of death due to allergic reactions. [Source: AAFA]

Anaphylaxis is undoubtedly alarming, but what triggers such intense reactions in the first place? To answer that, we need to explore the root causes of allergies.

The Root Causes of Allergies 

The immune system launches an allergic reaction when it misidentifies harmless substances as dangerous. The following items below are the common triggers.

Airborne Allergens: Pollen, pet dander, mold spores, dust mites 

Food: Peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, wheat

Insect stings and Bites: Bee stings, fire ant bites

Medications: Penicillin, sulfa drugs, NSAIDs like ibuprofen

Skin Contact: Poison ivy, nickel jewelry, latex condoms, cosmetics

In 2021, approximately 81 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with seasonal allergic rhinitis also known as hay fever. It was primarily caused by pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds. Additionally, skin allergies, including eczema, hives, and contact allergies, are prevalent, with 8 million children diagnosed with eczema in 2021. [Source: AAFA] 

From pollen to pet dander, the triggers of allergies are vast and varied. However, recognizing these causes is the first step in managing and preventing allergic reactions. You can ensure having a healthier, itch-free life.

Risk Factors and Complications

Certain factors increase susceptibility to developing allergies. These factors include:

  • Family History 
  • Age 
  • Asthma 
  • Atopic Dermatitis (eczema)

People with a family history that involves an allergy have a higher risk of developing it. As for age, it’s more common for children to have allergies than adults. That’s why you’ll often hear stories of adults who used to have certain allergies as kids but no longer do so.

Asthma is also one of the most common factors as 75% of people with asthma also have allergies. Similarly, 30% of children with eczema or atopic dermatitis develop food allergies.

Allergies can also lead to complications like sinusitis, ear infections, worse asthma, and increased lung infections. Sinusitis can come from nasal congestion while ear infections are from fluid buildup. 

Prevention and Management

Avoiding known allergens is key to allergy prevention and symptom management. Here are our recommendations.

  • Keep a diary to identify triggers  
  • Check pollen counts and stay indoors on high pollen days 
  • Use high-efficiency air filters in your home and car 
  • Wash bedding weekly in hot water to reduce dust mites 
  • Vacuum and dust regularly 
  • Consider allergy shots to build immunity against allergens

For severe allergies, wearing a medical alert bracelet can ensure prompt treatment in case of an emergency.

While complete allergy avoidance is difficult, identifying and minimizing exposure to triggers along with proper treatment can significantly improve the quality of life for people suffering from allergies.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the difference between a skin allergy and eczema?

Skin allergies produce hives, rashes, or swelling when exposed to an allergen. Eczema is not caused by an allergen but leads to chronically irritated, inflamed skin that flares up periodically. However, eczema can sometimes worsen due to allergies.

Can someone develop allergies later in life, even if they didn’t have them as a child?  

Yes, it’s possible to develop new allergies at any age. Allergies get triggered when the immune system starts recognizing something as an allergen that it previously considered harmless. 

How can one differentiate between a severe allergic reaction and a mild one?

Mild reactions lead to red, itchy eyes or a runny nose while severe reactions cause swelling of the lips, face, or throat, difficulty breathing, wheezing, lightheadedness, or fainting. These signs indicate anaphylaxis, which is potentially fatal.

The Bottom Line

Allergies affect a majority of the population whether it’s inside or outside the US. It ranges from minor irritations to life-threatening anaphylaxis. By identifying your unique triggers, you can minimize disruption and enjoy an active life despite allergies. You also need to avoid allergens when possible and manage symptoms appropriately.

Consulting an allergist can also help make your daily life easier. They can help you identify what to avoid and create a treatment plan tailored to your needs. As science has advanced significantly, people suffering from allergies can lead lives with minimal disruption.

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