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An allergic reaction results in an inflammatory reaction in the body, most often affecting the skin, airways, sinuses and gastrointestinal system.

If you are suffering from anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction characterised by difficulty breathing, a racing pulse, and/or a loss of consciousness, it is important that you seek immediate medical attention.


The causes of allergies – that is, the substances or allergens that can trigger this type of reaction – are extensive. They range from certain foods (for example, eggs, wheat, shellfish, nuts and dairy products) to environmental allergens such as pollen, grains, mould and dust, and even allergies to certain medications, pets, insect stings, cosmetics and metals.

What are the symptoms of allergies?

Symptoms of allergies can range from being an annoyance to a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.

Usually, airborne allergens (for example, pollen) result in:

  • Hay fever, which is characterised by sneezing, itchy, puffy eyes, a runny nose and a scratchy throat.
  • Asthmatic symptoms due to narrowed airways, which include wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

Food allergies are more likely to cause:

  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Tingling or swelling of the mouth, tongue or throat.

Other symptoms of allergies include hives and itching skin, chest tightness and in severe cases, anaphylaxis, signs of which include difficulty breathing, a drop in blood pressure, a rash, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, loss of consciousness and even coma.

How is it diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosing allergies is providing a comprehensive health history, so that your doctor can see if there is any pattern to when your symptoms occur.

First a physical examination needs to be done. For example, your doctor may find that your skin has patches of eczema or blistering. Then, various tests can be used to diagnose allergies. These include blood tests, which will measure how many antibodies that cause an allergic reaction are in your blood stream.

Then there are skin tests, where a small sample of the allergen is introduced into your system via pricks in the skin in order to see if there is an inflammatory skin response. If an inflammatory responce is detected, it would mean that you’re allergic to the substance.

What are your treatment options?

There is no cure for allergies but many allergies can be managed with medicine, which acts on the immune system to reduce its response to the allergen or helps to alleviate the symptoms. Over-the-counter and prescription medications are available, depending on your needs.

Immunotherapy is a type of allergy treatment that desensitises you to the allergen over time, usually by injecting a tiny amount into the body every few months, and is most effective for treating hay fever and allergic asthma.

For severe allergies that may result in anaphylaxis, emergency epinephrine (adrenaline) – a life-saving drug that can improve breathing and reduce symptoms – may be used.

Can it be prevented?

Avoiding exposure to known allergens is the best way to prevent a reaction from occurring. This means, for example, making sure that restaurant kitchens are aware of your allergies when ordering food, or avoiding owning a cat if they make you sneeze.

There is no sure way to prevent the development of allergies in the first place though – usually sufferers have a genetic predisposition or are asthmatic, which increases your risk of developing allergies.

Some research has shown that getting plenty of zinc, selenium and antioxidants in your diet while pregnant may reduce your unborn child’s risk of developing asthma, which in turn means that he or she will be less likely to have allergies.

For more info
The Allergy Society of South Africa

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The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015