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Allergy Overview

Allergies are diseases of the immune system that cause an overreaction to substances called "allergens." Allergies are grouped by the kind of trigger, time of year or where symptoms appear on the body: indoor and outdoor  allergies (also called "hay fever," "seasonal," "perennial" or "nasal" allergies), food allergies, latex allergies, insect  allergies, skin  allergies and eye  allergies. People who have allergies can live healthy and active lives.

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Glossary Glossary of Allergy Terms



Good allergy treatment is based on the results of your allergy tests, your medical history, and the severity of your symptoms. It can include three different treatment strategies:  avoidance of allergens, medication options and/or immunotherapy (allergy shots).

Avoiding Your Allergens

The best way to prevent allergy symptoms and minimize your need for allergy medicine is to avoid your allergens as much as possible and to eliminate the source of allergens from your home and other environments. For important tips, talk to your doctor.


Some people don't take allergy medicines because they don't take their symptoms seriously ("Oh, it's only my allergies.") The result may be painful complications such as sinus or ear infections. Don't take the risk. There are so many safe prescription and non-prescription medicines to relieve allergy symptoms!  Following is a brief list of medications taken for allergies. They are available in non-prescription and prescription form:

Antihistamines and decongestants are the most common medicines used for allergies.  Antihistamines help relieve rashes and hives, as well as sneezing, itching, and runny nose. Prescription antihistamines are similar to their non-prescription counterparts, but many of them do not cause drowsiness.  Decongestant pills, sprays, and nose drops reduce stuffiness by shrinking swollen membranes in the nose.

It is important to remember that using a non-prescription nasal decongestant spray more than three days in a row may cause the swelling and stuffiness in your nose to become worse, even after you stop using the medicine. This is called a "rebound" reaction. Some non-prescription "cold" medicines combine an antihistamine, a pain reliever like aspirin or acetaminophen, and a decongestant. Aspirin can cause asthma attacks in some people. Don't take a chance: if you have asthma, talk with your doctor before taking any non-prescription allergy medicine.

  • Eye drops may provide temporary relief from burning or bloodshot eyes. However, only prescription allergy eye drops contain antihistamines that can reduce itching, tearing and swelling.

  • Corticosteroid creams or ointments relieve itchiness and halt the spread of rashes. Corticosteroids are not the same as anabolic steroids that are used illegally by some athletes to build muscles. If your rash does not go away after using a non-prescription corticosteroid for (a week?), see your doctor.

  • Corticosteroid nasal sprays help reduce the inflammation that causes nasal congestion without the chance of the "rebound" effect found in non-prescription nose sprays.

  • Cromolyn Sodium prevents the inflammation which causes nasal congestion. Because it has few, if any, side effects, cromolyn can be safely used over long periods of time.

  • Oral Corticosteroids may be prescribed to reduce swelling and stop severe allergic reactions. Because these medications can cause serious side effects, you should expect your doctor to carefully monitor you.

  • Epinephrine comes in pre-measured, self-injectable containers, and is the only medication which can help during a life-threatening anaphylactic attack. To be effective, epinephrine must be given within minutes of the first sign of serious allergic reaction.

*New prescription and non-prescription drugs are approved periodically. If the prescription you are taking is not on this list, ask your doctor which category (above) it falls into, so that you can refer to this chart.

Immunotherapy (Allergy Shots)

When it is not possible to avoid your allergens and treatment with medications alone does not solve the problem, immunotherapy can often prevent allergy symptoms. It involves giving a person increasingly higher doses of their allergen over time. For reasons that we do not completely understand, the person gradually becomes less sensitive to that allergen. This can be effective for some people with hay fever, certain animal allergies, and insect stings. It is usually not effective for allergies to food, drugs, or feathers, nor is it effective for hives or eczema.

Sublingual Immunotherapy (SLIT)

Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is an alternative way to treat allergies without injections. Allergists give patients small doses of an allergen under the tongue to boost tolerance to the substance and reduce symptoms. SLIT is relatively safe and effective for the treatment of rhinitis and asthma caused by allergies to dust mites, grass, ragweed, cat dander, and tree pollens. If you are interested in learning more about SLIT, contact your healthcare provider.

Getting Reimbursement for Allergy Treatments

Health insurance can be tough to understand, so we are here to help. AAFA created a Web site Insurance Coverage, Denials & the Appeals Process, to help you understand the process of trying to get an asthma or allergy service or procedure recommended by your doctor covered by your insurance.


Also learn more about allergy treatment from the American College of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology (ACAAI).

SOURCE: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care. First created 1995; updated 2011.
© Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)
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