Dogs, cats, dust and pollen. Lactose, eggs, gluten and wheat. You name it. Someone you know is probably allergic or intolerant to it. Does this mean allergies are on the rise? Are we becoming more sensitive to our environments? Or are we just more likely to think we are? Meriter Allergist & Immunologist Jeremy Bufford, MD, offers answers, clears up misconceptions and shares the latest insights on just what allergies are — and are not:
Many more people think they’re allergic than actually are:
“Only four to six percent of children in the United States have food allergies—and that’s why it’s very important not to self-diagnose,” says Bufford. “Unless we verify the diagnosis, foods may be removed unnecessarily from a child’s diet, causing adverse nutritional consequences.” The explosion of gluten intolerance over the last several years is another example. “Although celiac sensitivity is a GI disorder that needs attention, many people are attributing their fatigue and joint pain to a gluten allergy, but there is no scientific data to support this.” Some people may experience intolerance to a certain food, like lactose, fructose or gluten, but they do not have a true food allergy that could result in an immediate, potentially life-threatening reaction.
How do I know if I have allergies or a cold?
The short answer—it’s not easy, and that’s why it is important to see a specialist. “Although symptoms can be similar, there are a number of differentiators, such as how long the symptoms have been occurring, timing of symptoms from year to year and the presence of fever, or skin irritations,” says Bufford.
Are some people born with allergies?
People often think that allergies occur upon the first exposure to an allergen, but prior exposure is necessary to start the allergic immunologic response, so symptoms should not appear until a subsequent exposure, explains Bufford. However, the initial sensitizing exposure could occur during pregnancy or through breast-feeding.
Are there any known cures for allergies?
Currently there is no “cure” for allergies, but there are some exciting new treatments on the horizon. Researchers are making progress with a method called immunotherapy to help children with food allergies. An allergic child is given extremely small quantities of the allergen, with gradual increases in dosage over time. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed promising results: in a test group of children with an egg allergy treated with immunotherapy, 75 percent were considered ‘desensitized’ to eggs after 22 months of treatment.
Advice for those who suspect allergies:
Dr. Bufford says: If you are concerned about allergies or allergic disorders, see a board-certified allergist for an appropriate work-up, definitive diagnosis and recommendations of things to avoid. If symptoms are severe or life-threatening, make an emergency action plan that includes self-injectable epinephrine and antihistamines.