The sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, allergies are an immune system reaction to some type of foreign substance.

Pollen, pet dander, mold, dust mites, and food are among the most common allergy triggers likely to cause an adverse immune system reaction. If you are among the 50 million or so Americans regularly experiencing allergy problems each year, you may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for:

  • Further evaluation
  • Treatment or management recommendations

What Causes Allergies?

Allergic reactions are produced when the immune system mistakenly considers what would normally be a harmless substance to be a threatening invader. When this happen, antibodies are produced in response to allergy trigger, referred to as an allergen. When an allergic reaction occurs, certain chemicals are released from cells throughout the body. One of these is histamine, which is largely responsible for the symptoms associated with hay fever (allergic rhinitis). Specific causes of allergic reactions may include:

  • Indoor/outdoor airborne substances (e.g., pollen, pet dander, dust)
  • Penicillin-based antibiotics and other medications
  • Bites from bees, wasps, and other insects
  • Materials that may irritate the skin, like latex
  • Peanuts, soy, shellfish, milk, and other foods

Common Symptoms

Symptoms produced by allergies affecting the ear, nose, and throat can vary depending on the specific source. For instance, hay fever usually results in sneezing, watery eyes, nose itching, and a runny or stuffy nose. Food allergies may cause tongue, face, lip, or throat swelling or tingling sensations in the mouth after the trigger food is consumed. Itchy eyes and swelling in the face are among the symptoms that may be experienced with drug allergies. Some allergies cause a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis.

How Are Allergies Diagnosed?

When diagnosing a patient with allergies, an ear, nose, and throat doctor typically asks questions about what seems to trigger symptoms and performs a physical examination. An allergen-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) blood test may be done to determine the amount of antibodies being produced in response to allergens. A skin test may also be performed.

Treatment Options

Over-the-counter or prescription medications may suppress the immune system’s response to certain allergens enough to reduce the severity of symptoms. Medications may be given as pills, liquids, nasal sprays, or eye drops. If a series of shots are given, it’s referred to as allergen immunotherapy (desensitization). The injections contain enough allergens to stimulate the immune system, but not enough to cause an adverse reaction. The goal is to gradually reduce the dosage as the immune system builds up a tolerance to the allergens over time.

Not all types of allergies are entirely preventable. It can, however, be helpful to know what triggers a reaction within your immune system if you have issues with allergies, so that you can know what to avoid as much as possible. Keeping a diary to track when symptoms seem to appear or when they get worse can also help an ENT doctor fine-tune treatment recommendations.