Ask the Expert: Allergy Q & A with Dr. Harold Kim
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(NC)- What is an allergy?
An allergy is a super-sensitivity to a substance that is not harmful to most other people. These substances are called allergens. The common allergens include pollen, mould, dust mites, cockroaches and pet dander. Some people also have food allergies. Some people have symptoms with strong chemical fumes, odours (including perfumes, fragrances in household cleaners and detergents), smoke and air pollution. These compounds are chemical irritants and not true allergens. The common symptoms of allergy include hay fever, asthma, eczema or food reactions.
How do I know if I have allergies?
Hay fever is the most common allergy problem in Canada. The typical symptoms of hay fever are sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose, watery eyes, a dry cough and itching. Asthma is a lung condition which can lead to shortness of breath, wheezing or coughing. Eczema is a skin condition which often involves a dry itchy rash. True food allergy reactions can include hives, itchiness, shortness of breath, throat tightness, lightheadedness or stomach pain after eating the food allergen. Allergies can be a serious medical condition and you should consult your doctor if you suspect you have them. A doctor may recommend allergy scratch tests (a type of skin testing in which suspected allergens are applied to the skin, scratched and observed for a reaction in 15 minutes). Skin tests should always be done under the supervision of a qualified physician with an expertise in allergy.
How are allergies treated?
The first step in an effective allergy treatment plan is to make some simple lifestyle changes that will limit your exposure to allergens. I would suggest having allergy scratch tests done before any major lifestyle changes are made. After the allergy scratch tests you will know the likely causes of the allergy symptoms. One can avoid pollen by keeping windows closed and air conditioning on during the high-pollen seasons. Most of the mould that causes allergies is from the outdoors. Therefore, keeping the windows closed is helpful. If you notice mould in the house it should be cleaned with diluted bleach. The best ways of avoiding dust mites are to purchase proper dust mite proof pillows and mattress covers, remove carpet from the bedroom, wash the bedding in hot water and to keep the humidity around 40 percent. Vacuuming and duct cleaning are actually not very effective at removing dust mites. The only way to remove pet allergens completely from the home is to keep the pet outdoors or to give the pet away. By keeping pets out of the bedroom, washing pets weekly and removing carpets from the bedroom, you can decrease your total pet allergen exposure. If you have a true food allergy, that food should be completely avoided.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist about which medications would help you manage your allergy symptoms. Antihistamines are the most common medications used to treat hay fever. Antihistamines block the action of histamine released by the immune system and are effective at reducing sneezing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. They are particularly effective at relieving the symptoms of seasonal hay fever and should be taken as soon as an allergy attack develops. You may also need a decongestant to reduce nasal congestion. Some antihistamines can cause side effects such as drowsiness and they should be avoided if you have to drive, work or perform tasks that require you to be alert. There are several websites offering good information on allergies, for example, visit http://www.claritin.ca.
Dr. Harold Kim is an allergy specialist based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.