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Nothing To Sneeze At

Nothing To Sneeze At

The latest in allergy testing and immunotherapy cures

From peanuts and pollen to housecats and bee stings, allergies of all sorts affect millions of people every day.

But what exactly is an allergy?

“When we talk about allergies, we’re talking about a very specific immune mechanism,” says Dr. Alicia Alvarez, an allergist and immunologist with First Physicians Group. And in this case, it’s an immune mechanism that’s gone a little haywire.

Throughout the course of the day, the human body encounters countless microscopic particles of all kinds and most are harmless, like oak pollen or cat dander. But for some people, these harmless substances are triggers for their immune system. “When our body gets exposed to a trigger, our immune system recognizes it as dangerous, even though it may not be, and attacks it,” says Dr. Alvarez. “This causes a chain reaction.”

It is this allergic reaction by the immune system that leads to allergy symptoms. Environmental allergens can cause itchy watery eyes, nasal congestion and drainage and sneezing. Other allergic reactions to medications and food can be severe and include skin rashes, swelling, shortness of breath and low blood pressure. 

So how do you stop your immune system from overreacting?

First you have to figure out your triggers.

How Are Allergies Diagnosed?

How many sneezes count as an allergy? Is this red bump a rash? It can sometimes be hard to tell what’s an allergy and what’s not, and that’s where a trip to the allergist comes in handy. With a quick office visit and a simple test, your allergist can determine whether what you’re experiencing is an allergic reaction or not.

“The gold standard is monitoring what happens when you’re exposed to different allergic triggers,” says Dr. Alvarez. The most common test for allergies is a simple skin prick test which exposes the skin to several allergens. This is sometimes called a scratch test. 

A small bit of the allergen is applied to the skin and a skin pricking device will introduce the allergen into the top layer of the skin. While no needles are used during this procedure, it can feel like a sharp poke. After 15-20 minutes, the allergist or nurse checks the results. “And if there’s a small local reaction,” says Dr. Alvarez, “we can identify that as an allergy for you.” Positive reactions can look like red, raised mosquito bites and feel itchy. 

Skin testing can include many allergens at once. This testing can be done on the back or the forearm. Rarely, additional forms of skin testing include small injections in the skin. This is typically done for penicillin allergy testing. 

Blood testing is also available, although it may not be as comprehensive. But it’s a great option for people who cannot complete a skin test due to conflicts with medications. Sometimes if the skin is very senstive, a blood test may be a more accurate option. 

“Once we identify what the allergies are,” says Dr. Alvarez, “we can be more proactive.”

Can Allergies Be Cured?

Thankfully, allergy medications are getting better and better, with fewer and fewer side effects. But wouldn’t it be great to be rid of the allergy altogether?

“Probably the best option for curing allergies is immunotherapy,” says Dr. Alvarez.

Immunotherapy is a long-term treatment option, but one that has shown lots of success. The basic idea is to expose the body’s immune system to the allergen, repeatedly and at specified doses, until the immune system is trained to no longer overreact to its presence. “Over time, we can desensitize the immune system to induce tolerance,” says Dr. Alvarez. “We really change that underlying mechanism, which is stronger than just taking medicine to treat the symptoms.”

Immunotherapy is typically administered through allergy shots, which carry a carefully controlled dose of allergens. For several months, the patient will go to the allergist for weekly shots, with the dose gradually increasing, training the immune system to tolerate it. This is referred to as the buildup phase. Next, comes the maintenance phase, where the patient will receive allergy shots once a month, typically over the course of three to five years.

“It’s a long process,” says Dr. Alvarez, “but the impact and the benefit will last for several years, even after you stop immunotherapy.”

New approaches to immunotherapy also include under-the-tongue tablets and drops that expose the immune system to allergens over time.

What Home Remedies Can I Use To Control Allergies?

Outside of help from medication or an allergist, the only real home remedies for allergies are finding ways to limit exposure to the allergen itself.

  • For dust and dust mites, clean regularly, keep the humidity low in the house and remember to wash your sheets and pillow cases weekly. Using a mask can help limit symptoms while cleaning.
  • For pollen, limit time outdoors when the pollen count is high and keep windows shut. When you come inside, change your clothes and wash your hair and face. A saline nasal spray can help rinse allergens from the nose.
  • For pets, if they’re inside pets, then your best bet is to keep them out of the bedroom, so you can at least have a place to sleep with less dander. There is some evidence that washing pets weekly can reduce allergen levels. There are also some cat foods that can reduce allergen levels.

But if symptoms persist—especially any affecting your breathing and causing wheezing or shortness of breath—contact a healthcare provider ASAP.

Need To See An Allergist?

If you are dealing with allergies or think you might have allergies, click here.

Dr. Alvarez is currently seeing patients at the following three locations in Lakewood Ranch, Sarasota and Venice:

  • FPG Silverstein Institute at Lakewood Ranch
    8433 Enterprise Circle, Ste. 150
    Lakewood Ranch, FL 34202
  • FPG Allergy on Floyd
    1901 Floyd St.
    Sarasota, FL 34239
  • FPG Silverstein Institute at Venice MOB
    200 Healthcare Way, Suite 200
    Venice, FL 34275

Call (941) 366-9222 for information and appointments.

Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. SMH’s in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, Ky.

Posted: Apr 16, 2024,
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