It is very seldom that an allergy becomes a risk to life. Admittedly, a number of folks are so sensitive to wasp venom they can die from a solitary sting, if not treated right away. Similarly, asthma can have serious effects as well, but for the majority, allergies are simply a pain in the neck. Not only do they make it difficult to focus, they also make us itch, cause runny noses and watery eyes, encourage wheezing and a catalog of other frustrating symptoms.
The exact reasons remain an area of intense research, although a strong hereditary component is almost certain. Enough is already known that these problems can be minimized, sometimes entirely eliminated.
All allergies are an immune system overreaction, one usually producing histamine, prostaglandin and other compounds. The result is the familiar membrane swelling that generates the symptoms. Pollen and mold are common allergens that invoke this response. Cat and, to a lesser degree, dog dander are two more. Dust mites, specifically their waste and decaying bodies, introduce proteins to which many are allergic.
Food allergies while sometimes hard to distinguish from mere food intolerance are real and affect millions. Eggs, peanuts and other foods commonly produce diarrhea or nausea in those sensitive to them.
Spider bites, even some from non-venomous spiders, can cause pain and swelling beyond the norm. Bee and wasp stings can be serious problems for those allergic to the venom. Anaphylactic shock is no myth.
Even milder symptoms are well known to those who suffer from contact dermatitis and other skin allergies. Hives, eczema and other uncomfortable conditions are known to far too many.
For all these and more, there is symptom relief and for some potentially a long-term elimination of the risks.
Reducing contact with allergens is highly helpful. One way to do that is to increase cleaning efforts around the home. Another is to reduce airborne allergens by employing a home air purifier. Both methods do help. They are safe and effective.
But when that is not enough, drugs can help.
Nonprescription antihistamines such as Benadryl and Claritin are well known and used safely by millions every day. Topical hydrocortisone cream such as Cortaid does provide relief to users. Prescription strength versions of these medications are available as well. Prednisone helps many live more comfortably.
Long term answers are emerging, as well. Allergy immunotherapy in the form of allergy shots have been widely used with great success. Doctors can inject allergy sufferers with an extract or genetically modified variant of the allergen. Little by little, the immune system is 're-trained' to better distinguish friend from foe and react appropriately to substances that are otherwise harmless to millions.
Much longer term, increases in the understanding of allergies may very well bring about genetic therapy to eliminate even the possibility of a reaction. Advances in genetic science are starting to make the remarkable appear unremarkable.
In the future, we might be able to think of allergies as a problem of the past, similar to polio. In the mean time, a little sympathy and the right treatments can keep this unfortunate genetic oddity down to less than nuisance level so we can get on with our lives.