Allergens vs. Allergies

allergensYou regularly hear the words “allergy” and “allergen”. Although correlated, the two words do not have the same meaning. An allergen is medically defined as any substance (typically a form of protein) that causes an allergic reaction in those sensitive to it or any substance that produces an allergy. WebMD defines an allergy as a reaction of the immune system to something foreign invading the body. The allergic reaction experienced by those affected is the body’s way of attempting to get rid of something that does not belong in the body. Histamines are then released as the immune and inflammatory response to the foreign substance, causing everything from itchiness, runny nose, swelling, sneezing, nausea, and rashes as well as other severe reactions (anaphylaxis). There is a cause and effect relationship between allergens and allergies. When the allergen enters the body, the allergic reaction is initiated as a response to rid the body of the allergen and neutralize it. Here are the different types of allergens, their symptoms, and ways to keep them under control.

Top 10 Airborne Allergens

Health experts estimate that over 35 million Americans have upper respiratory symptoms because of an allergic reaction. Airborne allergens are also called aeroallergens.

  • Tree Pollen
  • Grass Pollen
  • Weed Pollen
  • Mold Spores
  • Cat Dander
  • Dog Dander
  • Dust Mites
  • Cockroaches
  • Feathers
  • Other dander and organic fibers

Specific Allergens Explained:

Pollen: Pollen is a powder like substance that contains pollen grains. Most of the pollen that triggers an allergic reaction come from plants whose pollen floats through the air to transfer onto flowers. There are 3 main plant allergens: tree, grass and weed pollen. Many times, the reaction to the pollen from these plants cause nasal discomfort, sneezing, itching, and runny nose, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis. Each plant produces and spreads pollen at different times of the year, therefore those sensitive to pollen can suffer from allergies throughout the year.

Mold Spores: Mold is a living organism, classified as fungi, that reproduces through the development of spores that are separated and distributed from a parent source or organism. When in the ideal environment, the spores or “seeds” will attach to a source of nourishment and a colony will be established. Mold spores are present nearly everywhere as there are many possible indoor and outdoor sources for mold. The severity of the allergic reactions from mold vary depending on the level of sensitivity as well as the concentration of exposure. The most common reactions are itchy, watery, irritated eyes, runny nose, congestion, headache, cough, throat irritation, difficulty breathing, asthma, flu-like symptoms, and Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (also known as Sick Building Syndrome). The best treatment is to reduce the factors that help mold to grow and minimize exposure.

Pet Dander: Pet dander is the animal’s dead skin cells that are shed, much like dandruff from a human.  Animal saliva and other bodily substances also are causes for allergic reactions. There are a few breeds that produce less dander than others, but there is no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic (non-allergen producing) animal. For many years the animal’s hair or fur was blamed for allergic reactions and not the dander. The best way to control pet dander is to keep your pets off of furniture, vacuum regularly, use an HVAC air filter specifically for pet dander (replacing it monthly) and make sure your home has proper and efficient ventilation in place.

Dust Mites: One of the most common household allergens, dust mites are tiny insects that feed on human skin. They can live and survive almost anywhere, but prefer cloth materials like carpet and bedding. Dust mites do not bite humans to feed on their skin, rather they eat the skin cells that humans slough off regularly. The allergen from a dust mite is they themselves and their waste, which can cause serious upper respiratory issues. To control dust mites, purchase allergy control covers for your bedding and pillows, wash linens, rugs and any stuffed animals in hot water every week and monitor and adjust the humidity in your home.

Cockroaches: The saliva and waste from cockroaches can also trigger allergies and asthma when they are airborne. Even dead cockroaches can cause allergic reactions! Again, the best defense to protect yourself from cockroach allergens is to reduce exposure. Be sure to cover all trash cans tightly, store food in airtight containers, wash dirty dishes promptly, sweep up crumbs, fix leaky pipes (cockroaches like damp places), seal cracks in walls and floors and place cockroach baits and traps around the house.

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