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Dr. Alvin Sanico is director of the Asthma Sinus Allergy Program at GBMC.
Dr. Alvin Sanico is director of the Asthma Sinus Allergy Program at GBMC. (Photo courtesy of GBMC, Baltimore Sun)

About 50 million people in the United States suffer from some kind of allergy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The immune system becomes overactive when a person comes into contact with a substance from the environment or in food. People sneeze, cough or have some other more serious reaction.

There doesn't yet appear to be ways to prevent allergies, but they can be identified and controlled, according to Dr. Alvin Sanico, director of the Asthma Sinus Allergy Program at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

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What are allergy tests used for?

Allergy tests are used to identify specific substances to which you are sensitive, if any. This information, combined with your physician's evaluation, can help find long-term solutions to problems where allergies can be an important contributing factor. These conditions, which include asthma, sinusitis, and rhinitis commonly known as hay fever, can cause chronic or recurrent symptoms that impact quality of life. Allergy tests are also used to identify specific food items that can be implicated in the development of acute reactions that can be life-threatening.

What kinds of tests are available now?

Needle-free allergy skin testing performed in the allergist's office provides results in 20 minutes. This immediately available information can help you and your physician discuss relevant options regarding treatment. The allergy blood test done in a laboratory is a more costly alternative but needs to be considered if there is no clear area where allergy skin testing can be applied because of extensive eczema or tattoos. These tests detect the presence of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to specific allergens that are known to trigger reactions in predisposed individuals.

What are the most common allergies?

Sensitivity to airborne allergens such as those from trees, grasses, weeds, molds, dust mites, cats and dogs can trigger symptoms that range from itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion and postnasal drip to chest tightness, breathlessness, cough and wheezing. Sensitivity to allergens in certain food items such as peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish can trigger immediate reactions that range from generalized itchy hives to life-threatening airway obstruction or hypotension.

What kinds of treatments are available?

If the test demonstrates sensitivity to airborne allergens, avoidance measures can help minimize exposure to and effects of such allergens as much as possible. If such approach is not feasible or not sufficient, pharmacotherapy and immunotherapy are to be considered based on the frequency and severity of your symptoms. Medications include those that need to be used daily to prevent symptoms and those that are used only as needed to relieve breakthrough symptoms. Immunotherapy takes several months to induce tolerance to relevant allergens but is the only available treatment proven to provide long-term benefit. If you have demonstrated allergy to food, the primary strategy would be strict avoidance and, in the event of an acute life-threatening reaction, the use of epinephrine and immediate treatment in an emergency setting.

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