Allergies are a common term for many, and while most allergy symptoms are generally mild, some can be life-threatening. Many people refer to seasonal allergies, like hay fever, when they say they have allergies; these are also known as allergic rhinitis. You can manage most symptoms at home, but knowing when to see a healthcare provider for medications and allergy testing and when symptoms are life-threatening is essential. In addition to specialist visits, these are good tips to keep in mind when seeing your primary care provider. We’ll help break down all these details so you can feel prepared.
Types of Allergies
There are various types of allergies and an array of responses people may experience. Another variable may be the length of time between exposure and symptom onset. Up to 50% of people develop symptoms within 1-10 hours post-exposure.
Typical Ages When People Notice Certain Allergies
- Infants will often develop a skin rash (atopic dermatitis) and food allergies (milk is a big one).
- Toddlers/children commonly develop symptoms of asthma when exposed to allergens such as pets, mites, and dust.
- Teens’ common allergens may include tree pollen and grass, causing rhinitis symptoms (what most refer to as “allergies”).
- Younger adults may develop itching and angioedema if they discover an allergy to aspirin.
- Middle and older adults will often discover an allergy to venom from bee or wasp stings.
Often downplayed, seasonal allergies may be present in 27% of individuals, with most thinking they may have a common cold when symptoms appear. Seasonal allergies can be hard to diagnose and treat because some may assume they have a cold, especially if they have been exposed to people who have been ill. Many take over-the-counter medication and may never truly identify their triggers or the allergy culprits.
Typical time frames when we see an increase in allergic rhinitis are spring, summer, and fall. Symptoms may include sneezing; runny nose; itchy, watery eyes; and congestion. Treatment can be antihistamines, nasal sprays, and other supportive measures, such as adequate hydration. If symptoms hang out for an extensive period, the increase in congestion can lead to other health problems.
When a food allergy appears, this, too, can be tricky to identify and diagnose. Some food allergies present as intolerances and result in gastrointestinal symptoms. Other times, a food allergy may come with an anaphylactic reaction, which is life-threatening. Some of the most common foods people are allergic to are milk, eggs, and peanuts.
Otherwise known as a drug allergy, medication allergies occur when someone develops an allergic reaction after taking a medication. Medications can be over-the-counter or prescription-strength, and they can also vary in severity. The most common management of medication allergies is the avoidance of such medicines.
Often, people may confuse a drug side effect as an allergy; these are intolerances. In other words, a person may not necessarily be allergic to the medication but develop undesirable effects from it. Medication allergies commonly occur during young adulthood and are more common in women. There are various reasons why an allergy may occur, though all necessitate an appointment with a primary care provider, an allergist, and possibly even an emergency department. Unfortunately, severe allergic reactions occur in 7-13% of people.
A chemical allergic reaction occurs when someone is exposed to or comes in contact with a specific chemical and later develops an immune response. Skin rashes may be a typical immune response, requiring allergy testing for proper identification.
What Are the Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction?
Symptoms of seasonal allergies may include sneezing; runny nose; itchy, watery eyes; and congestion.
Other common symptoms of an allergic reaction may include the following:
- Angioedema (swelling)
- Contact dermatitis/rash
- Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) & toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN), which are severe skin reactions
How Can I Tell If My Allergies Are Serious Enough to Require Medical Attention?
Anaphylaxis is an immune response where the symptoms can become fatal if not treated rapidly. The triggers for an anaphylactic reaction could be medication, foods (peanuts are common), bee venom, or others. Here are some of the symptoms of an anaphylactic response:
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling like the throat is closing, throat or tongue swelling
- Hives, skin rash
- Altered level of consciousness, such as drowsiness, difficulty to arouse, or “passing out”
- Low blood pressure
- GI symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea
What Type of Doctor Should I See for My Allergies?
Doctors who specialize in allergies and allergic reactions are often called allergists. Allergists can run a variety of diagnostic exams to help identify the culprit of the allergy and its triggers and help develop a treatment plan.
Getting a good handle on allergies is crucial, as proper identification and treatment can take time. During that time, it can be hard to identify a potential trigger accurately, so it is important to remain patient while diligently monitoring reactions and symptoms. Once you see an allergist, you may need allergy testing, education, possible medications, and even a potential EpiPen to keep on you at all times. Sometimes, your healthcare provider may administer allergy shots to help slowly desensitize your immune system, with the goal of lesser allergic reactions over time.
When should I see a doctor for allergies?
Anytime you suspect you have seasonal allergies or an allergic reaction, seeing a doctor is a good idea. If you suspect an anaphylactic reaction, this is a medical emergency, and you should go to the nearest emergency room.
Allergists vs. immunologists: Is there a difference?
Though you may see both types of specialists interchangeably, there is a slight difference. Both specialists treat allergies and asthma, but an immunologist also specializes in the treatment and/or research of immunity-related disorders.
Should I see a doctor for allergic rhinitis?
Even though allergic rhinitis is relatively common, it is a good idea to see your doctor to ensure proper treatment and determine if they require further diagnostic testing.
Though allergies and allergic reactions can be common, many knowledgeable doctors have years of experience treating them adequately. Anaphylactic responses are severe and can be life-threatening, but with proper identification, diagnosis, and treatment, most people can live happy and full lives with minor modifications.
American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. (n.d.). When To See an Allergist. https://acaai.org/do-you-need-an-allergist/when-to-see-an-allergist/
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (n.d.). Allergy Facts. https://aafa.org/allergies/allergy-facts/
Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Allergist. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/24053-allergist#:~:text=%E2%80%9CAllergist%E2%80%9D%20is%20usually%20short%20for,research%20on%20the%20immune%20system.
Plackett, B. (2020). What Is an Allergy Sensitizer, and How Does a Chemical Become One?. ACS Chemical Health & Safety, 27(2), 75-77. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.chas.0c00025. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.chas.0c00025#
Rusznak, C., & Davies, R.J. (1998). Diagnosing allergy. British Medical Journal, 316(7132), 686. doi: 10.1136/bmj.316.7132.686. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1112683/
Warrington, R., Silviu-Dan, F., & and Wong, T. (2018). Drug allergy. Allergy, Asthma, Clinical Immunology, 14(Suppl 2), 60. doi: 10.1186/s13223-018-0289-y. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6157123/
Krystle Maynard is the creator of Innovative RN Solutions and has been a nurse for over a decade. She has specialized in medical-surgical and critical care nursing, in addition to having a long-standing history of being an adjunct faculty member for a college of nursing. Innovative RN Solutions focuses on healthcare content writing (such as blogs, E-books, emails, academic coursework, and educational content for healthcare personnel and patients). Krystle also offers tutoring and mentor services for undergraduate and graduate nurses. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and children. If you would like to connect, you can reach her on Linked In or visit her website at Innovative RN Solutions.
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