Your Allergy Questions, Answered

Your nose is running, your eyes are itchy and you have a pounding headache. You may be suffering from allergies, along with more than 50 million other Americans. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States and can be caused by things like pollen, dust, food, insect stings, animal dander, mold, drugs and latex.

Why do we get this pesky illness? An allergy is a reaction that begins in the immune system. When the body encounters a substance that it thinks is a threat, it tries to protect itself by producing Immunoglobulin E antibodies and releasing chemicals like histamine.

Common symptoms include a runny nose, red eyes, sneezing, coughing, dark undereye circles, puffy eyes or a crease across the nose caused by repeated nose rubbing, but no two people have the same reaction to a potentially allergy-triggering substance.

“We could both walk by someone who is wearing strong perfume, and I might just sneeze, but you might sneeze, get watery eyes and begin wheezing,” said Dr. K. Dionne Posey, national medical director of Clinical Operations, Population Health Solutions and Prevention at Optum.

In addition to triggering those symptoms, allergies can sometimes be associated to other common diseases like asthma, conjunctivitis, hives, eczema, dermatitis and sinusitis.

Some allergies result in year-round symptoms, while others are tied to a specific time of year, usually early spring. Some people have bimodal allergies, meaning they experience symptoms twice a year, usually in spring and fall.

In addition to changes throughout the year, allergies can also change throughout our lives. “Young people may outgrow their allergies, and some people notice new allergy symptoms upon moving to a different part of the country,” Dr. Posey said.

Regardless of the causes, symptoms or timing of allergies, it’s important to know that relief is possible, Dr. Posey said. Tests can help determine what you’re allergic to so you can try to avoid contact with those substances. You might also be able to get relief from over-the-counter antihistamines, prescription nasal steroids or allergy injection therapy.

“If you’re feeling bad during the day or are unable to rest well at night, you should consult with your health care practitioner,” Dr. Posey said.

If you’re armed with the right information and a strategy for coping, most allergy symptoms can be avoided or controlled, so you don’t have to dread the changing of seasons.