Allergy Overview

Do your allergies...

  • Keep you awake in the middle of the night?
  • Prevent you from enjoying sports or other physical activities?
  • Keep you home from school or work on a regular basis?
  • Interfere with your daily routine?
  • Send you to the emergency room?
  • Cause you to restrict the foods you eat or the medications you use when you are sick?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you need help defining and controlling your allergies. Dr. Baxter is an allergy doctor with more than 30 years of experience helping patients manage their symptoms and avoid future flare-ups. She can help you find relief from allergies so that you feel healthier and happier.

What Is an Allergy?

When you have an allergy — as about 50 million Americans do — your immune system treats the food/chemical/substance that you are allergic to as an invader, releasing certain chemicals to protect the body from it. These chemicals cause allergic symptoms that affect the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, stomach and other bodily systems. Symptoms range from merely irritating to potentially life threatening, and Dr. Baxter works with patients on every end of the spectrum.

The most common types of allergies include the following:

Food

Although they can occur at any age, food allergies are most prevalent in babies and children. The most common food allergy groups include milk, eggs, wheat, soy, nuts and fish.

Learn more about food allergies.

Pollen

Pollen allergies are some of the most common allergies. People with pollen allergies react to tiny pollen grains (traces of powder) released by trees, weeds and grasses that travel in the wind to fertilize parts of other plants. Pollen can enter the nose and throat and trigger an allergic reaction, known to some as hay fever. Some people are allergic to some types of pollen (e.g., certain grasses) but not others.

Pollen counts vary with the weather and the time of day; the pollen count is highest in the early mornings and late evenings on warm, breezy days.

Insects

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, half a million people go to the emergency room every year for insect stings from bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets and other bugs. The most serious insect sting reactions are unconsciousness and cardiac arrest.

Medicines

Many people have trouble tolerating certain prescription or non-prescription drugs. In addition, medications may react with one another and cause problems. People most commonly react to antibiotics (penicillin or penicillin-like drugs) and aspirin/non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Others may be sensitive to X-ray contrast dye, and rarely, people react to vaccines. Dr. Baxter is a published author in the area of drug hypersensitivity.

Mold

Mold is fungus, and fungi “seeds” are called spores or mildew. Mold and mildew can live indoors (in moist places like basements and bathrooms) and outdoors (on leaves and in compost piles). Spores are spread via wind and air, and when inhaled by someone with a mold allergy, cause upper respiratory symptoms and asthma.

Dust

The most common causes of dust allergies are microscopic organisms called dust mites. Dust mites thrive in warm, humid environments; they eat dead skin cells and absorb water from the humidity in their environment. People with dust allergies react to proteins within the mites’ bodies and waste products, which are found mostly in bedding, carpeting and upholstered furniture. If the carpets, bedding or furniture is disturbed, the particles will float around in the air, eventually settling.

Pets and Other Animals

Pet allergies can be some of the most heartbreaking allergies, as symptoms may not arise until a pet has been adopted and has become part of the family. Pets may cause allergy problems in several ways: dander (or skin flakes), saliva and urine are all allergens. Also, animal hair/fur may collect dust, mold, pollen and other allergens.

Other animals that can cause allergy problems, even though they stay outdoors, include rodents, deer, horses and cattle.

Allergy Symptoms

Symptoms of allergies can affect many bodily systems, including the respiratory system, the digestive system and the cardiovascular system, and may include the following:

  • Itching of the skin/eyes/nose/mouth/palate/throat
  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Frequent colds/sinus infections
  • Rash
  • Malaise
  • Aches
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Cramping
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Flushing
  • Swelling

Dr. Baxter warns that certain symptoms that may at first appear to be allergies — such as swelling — could actually be the side effects of a medication.

Diagnosis of Allergies

Typically, the first step of the diagnostic process is a conversation about the patient’s medical history. Dr. Baxter will ask the patient questions about his or her symptoms, lifestyle, significant past medical events and family health history. She is looking for a pattern of symptoms and possible triggers.

After discussing the patient’s medical history, Dr. Baxter will order testing to provide further insight into the allergy. Tests may include the prick test and/or the ImmunoCAP blood test. In the former, trace amounts of the suspected allergens are placed on top of the skin, which is pricked and then monitored for a reaction. If a raised bump develops, it signals an allergic reaction. The ImmunoCAP blood test measures the amount of allergy-type antibodies in the bloodstream. It may be used in conjunction with the skin prick test or alone. If a patient is unable to wean off their antihistamine medication in preparation for the skin prick test, the blood test is a reliable alternative.

Intradermal tests may also be performed in some cases, in order to ensure the most specific and reliable results from the entire skin test process. In cases of low reactivity, intradermal tests may increase the sensitivity of the skin test, and in cases of generalized, possibly nonspecific reactivity, they may help distinguish false positive reactions from true reactions. Generally all skin tests are photographed digitally and patients receive copies of the photographs as well as all test results during the post-test counseling session.

Allergy Treatments

People can take several approaches to coping with their allergies. Dr. Baxter’s philosophy is to find the treatment approach that is most effective with the least side effects. This is going to be different for each person. Dr. Baxter uses an individualized approach to patient care that focuses on meeting the unique needs of each man, woman or child she encounters.

Avoidance

Once it has been determined that a substance causes an allergic reaction, Dr. Baxter advises the patient to avoid any exposure to it.

For example, someone with a dust allergy must be diligent about housecleaning to keep dust from accumulating and drifting around the house. Alternatively, someone with a mold allergy may need to invest in a dehumidifier to get rid of some of the excess moisture in the home.

Complete avoidance can be complicated, especially in cases where a patient:

  • Has a food allergy and may be unaware of trace amounts of the food in a mixed dish
  • Has a pollen allergy but works an outdoor job during allergy season
  • Is allergic to a beloved pet

Dr. Baxter will give patients tips for avoiding the allergen and what to do in case of emergency exposure.

Medications

If a person is unable to avoid an allergen altogether, or unexpectedly encounters the allergen, medications can treat symptoms. Antihistamines are the most common medications for exposure to allergens. These medications block the effects of histamines, which are the proteins that the body releases when it comes into contact with an allergen. Antihistamines are effective for most patients with mild to moderate allergy symptoms.

Other medications that may be used to treat allergy symptoms include:

  • Decongestants
  • Montelukast
  • Eye drops
  • Nasal sprays

Subcutaneous/Sublingual Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy involves administering gradually increasing doses of the allergen to suppress the immune system’s response over time. With the increasing doses of the allergen, the immune system retrains itself to become less sensitive to the substance, thereby reducing future allergic reactions. The allergen may be delivered via injections (subcutaneous immunotherapy) or via drops or tablets placed under the tongue (sublingual immunotherapy).

Struggling with Allergies?

If you’d like to schedule an appointment with Dr. Baxter to talk about your symptoms and undergo allergy testing, please call our office at (214) 363-8653.

Dr. Barbara Baxter

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by Barbara Stark Baxter MD
Internal Medicine & Allergy Specialist