What Allergists Want You to Know

Allergens lurk everywhere—in your home, in your backyard, at the office, and on public transportation. They range from quite common to incredibly rare, with effects ranging from slight nasal stuffiness to a life-threatening allergic reaction. And because allergies are so common, chances are you’re either an allergy sufferer yourself or know somebody who is. The bad news? The incidence of allergies keeps rising. The good news is that, in many cases, new and better treatments are available all the time. Here are four facts allergists want you to know:

1. People Are Allergic to a Wide Variety of Substances

One of the most common types of allergies, seasonal allergies, are most prevalent in the spring and fall and are typically linked to tree pollen and ragweed. They can cause allergic rhinitis, or stuffy nose, which about 50 million Americans have. Seasonal allergies can make it difficult for sufferers to be outside at certain times.

In contrast, people who are allergic to substances such as cat dander, dust, and mold may have a tough time indoors. These allergens may trigger allergic rhinitis or even an asthma attack (asthma affects about 25 million people in the United States). Other common allergies include food allergies (15 million sufferers), insect-sting allergies (5 percent of the population), and drug allergies (up to 10 percent of the population). Rarer allergies include latex, water, and even sunlight. You can develop an allergy to nearly anything at nearly any point in your life.

2. Eight Foods Are Responsible for 90% of Food Allergies

The so-called "top eight" most common food allergies include:

  • milk
  • eggs
  • wheat
  • soy
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • fish
  • shellfish

The most common food allergen in children is milk, with eggs in the number-two spot, according to Sunit Jariwala, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of allergy and immunology at Montefiore Hospital in New York City. Children often outgrow both these allergies.

In adults, fruits and vegetables are the most common food allergies, typically presenting as oral allergy syndrome, which is characterized by itchy lips and mouth, a scratchy throat, or swelling of the lips, mouth, and throat in patients. Oral allergy syndrome usually is not cause for concern, as symptoms tend to subside quickly. After fruits and vegetables, the most common food allergy in adults is to peanuts and tree nuts. Reactions to both can be swift and severe, and sufferers may be advised to carry an epinephrine auto-injector in order to counteract anaphylactic (severe, often life-threatening, allergic) reactions.

Although the eight foods above are the most likely to cause reactions in people, it’s important to remember that anything can cause an allergy. If you experience a reaction after eating something not in the top eight, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with an allergist for a consultation—and don’t eat that food again until you’re evaluated.

3. Environmental Allergies Are Generally Treatable

A little forethought and planning may be all that’s required to get through the day (and night) comfortably. Paying special attention to household cleanliness, installing HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arresting) air filters around the home, and changing sheets and pillowcases frequently to minimize contact with dust mites and pet dander can be a huge help to those with indoor allergies, according to Jariwala. Taking a daily preventive dose of antihistamines (allergy drugs, usually taken orally) before the season even starts and possibly avoiding the outdoors on heavy pollen days may make all the difference for a seasonal allergy sufferer.

Also worth considering: allergy shots. You may hate needles (who doesn’t?), but new and better targeted therapies are making it possible to minimize or even halt the allergic process. "Allergy shots can prevent the progression of allergies or even the development of new allergies," Jariwala says. "It’s a really exciting time."

4. There’s no Magic Bullet for Food Allergies

The name of the game here is avoidance. It may be easy to do this in the supermarket and at home, but where some sufferers run into trouble is when dining out. Cross-contamination—when food particles from one dish inadvertently end up in another dish because they’re prepared in the same kitchen—is a disaster waiting to happen, Jariwala says. You may ask a server to leave the croutons off your salad so as not to irritate your wheat-averse digestive tract, but what happens if the person preparing your salad has just been slicing bread? To prevent errant crumbs from landing in the arugula, Jariwala urges sufferers to call ahead and speak to a manager before eating someplace. "Or at least alert the restaurant [as soon as you get there]." It’s better to be prepared than play such a risky game of chance.

Sunit Jariwala, MD reviewed this article on April 8, 2016.

Sources

Jariwala, Sunit, MD. Phone conversation with author. April 4, 2016.

"Oral Allergy Syndrome." American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Accessed on April 3, 2016.

"Adults With Food Allergies." Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team. Accessed on April 3, 2016.

"Allergy Facts and Figures." Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Accessed on April 4, 2016.

"Antihistamines for Allergies." MedlinePlus. Page updated May 18, 2014.