Allergy image courtesy of Flickr/baronsquirrel

Winter is finally on its way out, and the sun is beginning to cast a blanket of warmth and beauty. The temperature is not the only thing heating up during this time of year, however. The spring allergy season is right around the corner, and many people are already feeling its effects. About 20% of all people in the developed world suffer from allergies, and this number is believed to be growing significantly. Despite how many people have allergies, however, few may really understand what they are. The following is an informative guide to the most common types of allergies and what allergies are.

What are allergies and allergens?

An allergy is a reaction from your immune system to particles that are usually harmless. In other words, your immune system mistakes harmless particles, such as pollen, as harmful invading germs and activates to protect you. This is what causes redness, runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, swelling, vomiting, itchiness, and many other uncomfortable symptoms. An allergen is a particle that causes an allergic reaction. For example, pollen would be an allergen to someone who has pollen allergies.

There are many different types of allergies, such as food allergies, pet allergies, and seasonal allergies. The following information will help you better understand the different types of allergies.

Seasonal Allergies

Seasonal allergies are allergies that occur during certain times of the year. This is usually caused by the seasonal life cycles of many plants and trees. Spring, for example, is often considered one of the worst allergy seasons because many plants and trees release spores and particles of pollen into the air to help with fertilization after the long winter. This agitates those who are allergic to these particles. Likewise, winter allergies also cause many people frustration, as the more time they spend indoors exposes them to more dust, mold, and dander allergens.

An example of a common seasonal allergy is hay fever, although hay fever also affects many people year-round. Hay fever is also known as allergic rhinitis, which is actually a more accurate name because it is not an allergy to hay. Allergic rhinitis causes sneezing, wheezing, congestion, and itchy eyes. Speak to your doctor if you think you may have allergic rhinitis.

Food Allergies

Almost everyone will experience a food allergy or a food intolerance at some point during their lifetime. A food allergy is when you have an allergic reaction to a specific food. In other words, your immune system mistakes a certain food you eat as a harmful germ and activates. Food allergies are less common than food intolerance. A food intolerance does not involve the immune system, which means a food intolerance is medically different from a food allergy, although they can both cause similar symptoms. A good example of these differences is the difference between milk allergies and lactose intolerance. For those with milk allergies, the immune system activates, causing wheezing, hives, vomiting, and digestive problems when they consume milk. In lactose intolerance, the body simply cannot break down and digest lactose when milk is consumed.

There are eight commonly allergenic foods, which are often referred to as the big eight. The big eight consists of eggs, milk, fish, tree nuts, groundnuts, soya, wheat, and shellfish. People who are allergic to these foods are likely to experience stomach pain or stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, hives, coughing, wheezing, trouble swallowing, choking, swelling in the face, tongue, or throat, or trouble breathing. A big concern with food allergies is anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Pet Allergies

As much as we love our pets, the unfortunate truth is that many people are allergic to their furry friends. It is important to note here that many people are not allergic to their pets' hair or fur, as most believe. It is actually the dead skin cells (dander), saliva, and urine of their pets that they are allergic to. With nearly a dog or cat in every other home in America, the National Institute of Health estimates that pet dander can actually be found in every home. Allergies to other pets and animals are also common, including allergies to bee stings, horses, guinea pigs and other rodents, as well as birds.

Common symptoms of pet allergies include red skin, red eyes, itchiness, nasal congestion or runny nose, wheezing, sneezing, and coughing. If you believe you or a loved one may be allergic to a pet, speak to your doctor.

You can help control pet allergies by cleaning your home often, and also by making your home more easy to clean. Filtering the air in your home with an air cleaner or air filter is another way to greatly reduce your pet allergies. Lastly, try making certain parts of your home pet-free. For example, keep pets out of your bedroom since you spend a third of your time sleeping there.

Other Allergies

A lot of people have allergic reactions to many other things as well, such as plants, insect stings, medications, and cosmetic products. Some even have allergic reactions to sun exposure. Most people develop sun burns when they are exposed to too much ultraviolet radiation, but skin reactions occur much sooner and much more intensely in those with sun allergies. People sometimes experience allergic reactions to medications, such as Aspirin and penicillin. The great variety of different allergies people have is why doctors and pharmacists need to know what you may be allergic to in order to prevent an allergic reaction to your medication. They also need to be aware of your allergies so you can receive alternative treatment.

If you suspect you may have an allergy, or if you are unsure if you have any allergies, make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can test you for various allergies by giving you a blood test or a skin test, although the skin test is much more common. The skin test is simple and painless. During a skin test, your doctor will use drops of various suspected allergens and scratch them gently into your skin to see if there is a reaction. It may become itchy, though!