As if suffering from an allergy isn't bad enough, many people plagued by allergies also have to sort out lots of conflicting evidence and erroneous advice. To set the record straight, here are some of the most common myths about allergies — the facts that debunk them.
Allergies are very real - in some cases, potentially life-threatening - rooted in heredity and the environment, yet the mind plays a significant role in their behavior and emotions can trigger allergic reactions.
"Allergy straddles the mind-body border," explains Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard-trained physician who is a leading authority on alternative medicine.
"Emotional stress can precipitate allergic reactions, and relaxation techniques can moderate them. A person who is strongly allergic to roses, for example, may react to the sight of a plastic rose, demonstrating the involvement of the mind and the brain." Dr. Weil advocates hypnotherapy to lessen or even prevent allergic reactions.
Children are ten times more likely than adults to have food allergies. Some researchers believe that as a person's gastrointestinal system develops, it gets better at blocking the absorption of components that trigger food allergies. Over time, children typically outgrow allergies to cow's milk, eggs, wheat, and soybean products. However, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish can be lifelong. And some children will outgrow one allergy only to develop another.
Although it rarely happens, allergies can kill. Some people have such an extreme sensitivity to a particular substance that the allergen can trigger an episode known as an anaphylactic shock. A sudden, potentially fatal reaction, anaphylactic shock lowers blood pressure, swells the tongue or throat, and constricts the airways of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
Such a reaction requires immediate medical attention. Anaphylactic shock is most often triggered by a food or drug, but it can also result from an insect sting or even, rarely, from immunotherapy for an allergy. People with a history of severe allergic reactions should always carry a pre-loaded syringe of epinephrine (a synthetically produced form of the hormone adrenaline), which can be administered in an emergency.
A dog may be a man's best friend, but not if the man is among the estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population that suffers from pet allergies. The allergen is a specific protein produced not in the animal's fur, but primarily in its skin and - a lesser extent- urine and saliva.
As the animal is petted or brushed, or as it rubs up against furniture or people, microscopic flakes of skin (called dander) become airborne. Since all cats and dogs have skin, there are no nonallergenic breeds.
However, since short-haired pets have less hair to shed, they send less dander into the air, so are preferable for those with pet allergies. Dogs are half as likely to cause allergic reactions as cats, but if you're allergic to furry animals, the only no-risk pets are fish and reptiles.
"Leaves of three, let them be," runs the standard advice on how to avoid poison ivy and its equally villainous cousins, poison oak and poison sumac. But those who are allergic to this relative of the cashew - many as 85 percent of all Americans - find that no amount of armor or vigilance can protect them.
The chemical that gives these plants their poisonous reputation is an oily resin called urushiol. And what makes it truly diabolical is that it can hitchhike on clothing, dog's fur, even garden tools. If you come into contact with poison ivy, wash the oil off (preferably with brown soap and water) within 20 to 30 minutes, before it soaks into the skin. Since the residue can remain potent for a year or more, scrub tainted items as well.
Some people who are allergic to seafood avoid certain skin medications and diagnostic medical tests that use iodine because they fear an allergic reaction. But there is no connection between allergies to fish and shellfish and allergies to iodine. Allergies to fish and shellfish are caused by the protein in them, not the iodine.
Milk allergy is most common among infants and is usually outgrown in adulthood. When adults react adversely to milk - from cramps, gas, and diarrhea - symptoms are often mistaken for an allergic reaction. This is actually a condition known as lactose intolerance - inherited trait caused by the body's lack of an enzyme, lactase, needed to break down lactose, the sugar in milk or milk products.
Like food allergies, intolerances are adverse reactions to food, but unlike food allergies, they don't involve the immune system. (In cases of lactose intolerance, adults may use supplemental lactace - e.g., Lactaid - or consume dairy products from which lactose has been removed. Consultations with a nutritionist may help in identifying which supplements and which products are safe to use).
Limiting your diet to organic food is no guarantee that you'll avoid food allergies. In fact, some of the most allergenic foods are "natural," unprocessed foods: cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, fish and shellfish and tree nuts. Combined, these foods account for up to 90 percent of all allergic reactions. Allergies are caused not by chemicals related to growing the food, but by proteins in the food.
While immunotherapy may not work for all allergies and all people, it has been shown to be effective for allergies to insect venom 98 percent of the time, and for hay fever about 85 percent of the time. In some cases, immunotherapy can actually trigger an acute allergic reaction, but if the therapy is properly administered, these risks can be reduced.
For allergy sufferers, there is simply no safe haven. While desert regions have no maple trees or ragweed, they do have plenty of other plants that produce pollen, including sagebrush and cottonwood, ash, and olive trees. Relocating to such a region may offer relief for a few months, but a fresh crop of allergies to local plants is likely to develop before long.
Sometimes adults suddenly have a severe reaction to something they weren't allergic to before. Learn why adult-onset allergies can crop up so quickly.