Information for Preteens:
Body Science, About Allergies
You have probably heard of some common allergies and you probably know they can make people sneeze, but do you know why people get allergies or how to treat them?
- Why do people get allergies?
- What are some common allergens?
- How common are food allergies?
- What are the symptoms of an allergy?
- Do people have severe reactions?
- What doctors treat allergies?
Why do people get allergies?
An allergy is a reaction of your immune system. Usually, your immune system helps fight germs and keeps you healthy. But sometimes, it can become confused and think that something harmless – such as pollen or peanuts – is really dangerous.
These substances are called allergens. The immune system then reacts just the way it would if that allergen was a virus or bacteria: by trying to destroy it. It produces chemicals, including one called histamine, that can affect your throat, breathing, nose, eyes, digestive organs, or skin. This can cause reactions like sneezing, coughing, and watery eyes.
A tendency to get allergies is often genetic, meaning it runs in families. So if you have allergies, your siblings and parents might too – even if you are not all allergic to the same thing. Other times, allergies occur because you are exposed to an allergen at a particular time, such as after you have been sick.
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What are some common allergens?
- Specific foods (like peanuts or strawberries)
- Latex (the rubber used in medical gloves)
- Mold and mildew
- Proteins in animal skin or saliva
- Dust from plants, called pollen
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How common are food allergies?
If you think you are the only one with a food allergy, think again! About 2 million kids in the United States have food allergies. A few of the most common food allergies are to eggs, milk, nuts, shrimp, wheat, or soy. Like regular allergies, a food allergy occurs when the body wrongly thinks the food is dangerous and tries to fight it off.
An allergy to milk is not the same thing as lactose intolerance. Someone who is lactose intolerant is not actually allergic to milk. Their stomach may get upset if they drink milk, but that is because they cannot break down the sugar in the milk. The immune system is not involved.
Fortunately, companies are now making more foods for people with allergies. So if you are allergic to milk, you can try soy milk. If you are allergic to wheat, you can eat cookies made with other kinds of flour. There are lots of options that mean you can still have your favorite tastes!
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What are the symptoms of an allergy?
Everyone reacts differently to allergens, and some people react more quickly than others. For some people, they begin experiencing symptoms right away, while for others, it can take a few hours.
If you have allergies, you will probably experience some of these symptoms around the specific allergen:
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
- Stomach ache, diarrhea, or vomiting (for food allergies)
- Allergies last longer than colds, so if you have experienced symptoms for longer than two weeks, it might not be a cold.
- If you have a cold, your mucus (including the snot coming out of your nose) will be greenish or yellowish and thick. If it's allergies, your mucus is more likely to be clear.
- If you have a cold, your eyes should not be itchy, but they might be with allergies.
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Do people have severe reactions?
In rare cases, someone with an allergy might experience something called "anaphylaxis" if they come into contact with the allergen. This is a serious reaction in which the whole body can experience problems – such as swelling, stomach ache, vomiting, and dizziness.
Anaphylaxis can be very dangerous because it can cause the person to stop breathing. Someone having an anaphylactic reaction needs medical help immediately. If someone you know is having a severe allergic reaction, tell a grown-up right away.
Someone with severe allergies should make a plan with his or her family and school about what to do if they accidentally come into contact with the allergen. Anaphylactic reactions can be stopped with a shot of something called epinephrine, so kids who are severely allergic might carry epinephrine with them, just in case.
If you are one of those kids, make sure you know where your injection is, or where to go at your school if you need a shot.
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What doctors treat allergies?
There are special doctors to treat allergies, called allergists, who can help you find out if you have allergies.
An allergist can do an allergy test by taking a small sample of the thing you might be allergic to and putting it under your skin. If you are allergic to it, the area will get red and bumpy. Doctors might also do a blood test to look for antibodies, which are made by the immune system to try to kill the allergen.
For a food allergy, doctors can do a similar test. They put a liquid version of the food onto a small cut that they make on your skin. If the cut gets irritated or red, then you are allergic to that food.
Doctors can also help you find a way to control some allergies. There are several medicines for allergies – including nose sprays, pills, or liquid. A medicine is not available for every kind of allergy, however, and may not be necessary if the allergen can be avoided.
Doctors may also prescribe allergy shots, which are given over a long period of time. These help the immune system have a smaller reaction to the allergen, so symptoms become less severe.
If your doctor does not recommend a medicine, here are some ways to avoid common allergens:
- If you are allergic to a pet, keep it out of your room. Keep your pet clean and have someone clean up pet hair so it is not all over the house. If that does not work, you may have to give the pet away.
- If you are allergic to dust, clean your room regularly and use an air filter.
- For allergies to food, read food labels. These will tell you if the food contains an ingredient you are allergic to, or is processed in the same factory as another food that contains the allergen.
- If you are severely allergic to something, such as peanuts, let your school know. In some cases, the school might be willing to stop providing nuts on campus and warn other students not to bring them to school.
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high school student writer
Below are links PAMF accessed when researching this topic. PAMF does not sponsor or endorse any of these sites, nor does PAMF guarantee the accuracy of the information contained on them.
Allergens, Food Allergy Research & Education.
For More Information:
Visit our Allergy Center.
See our Teen Allergies article.
Reviewed by: Adolescent Interest Group
Last reviewed: August 2013