Your Health

Allergy alert

Tips for dealing with your allergies

A computer-generated, close-up image of a dust mite.
A computer-generated, close-up image of a dust mite.

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2011

What are allergies?

Allergies are a reaction by the body's immune system to harmless substances that it sees as harmful. The allergy-causing substances are called allergens.

How do they occur?

Your immune system is your body's natural defense against infection and other foreign materials. Before you can have a reaction to a particular substance, your immune system must first be sensitized to it. This happens in an earlier contact with the substance. Once sensitized, your body will react every time you have contact with that substance. Many substances can cause an allergic reaction. The most common are:

  • Pollen
  • Mold
  • Animal dander
  • Dust and dust mites
  • Latex
  • Medicines
  • Insect stings
  • Foods

The allergens may cause different kinds of allergic reactions. The most common allergic conditions are hay fever, asthma, and skin allergies. Allergic reactions of the skin can have many possible causes.

Examples of irritants that can cause allergic reactions when they touch your skin are hair or skin care products, nickel in jewelry and belt buckles, dyes in leather or fabric, and poison ivy or poison oak. Eczema is a skin condition that causes itching, dryness, fine scales or flaking, and sometimes mild redness. The cause of eczema is usually not known.

It is also possible to have an allergic reaction to sunlight or temperature extremes.

Common foods that may cause allergy symptoms are shellfish, eggs, milk, nuts, and peanuts. Food allergies often occur in children, who may outgrow them.

It is not known why some people develop allergies to certain substances. Having a family member with allergies can increase your risk of developing them, but not every family member may be allergic to the same thing. Sometimes an allergic reaction may be severe. This is called anaphylaxis. It is a life-threatening emergency that can affect breathing and circulation within several minutes. Insect stings, certain foods, and drugs such as penicillin are some of the more common causes of severe allergic reactions.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of an allergic reaction depend on the type and severity of the reaction. Common symptoms of an allergy are:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • A rash or hives (raised, red, itchy areas on the skin)
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea

Some of the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction are:

  • Fast pulse
  • Trouble breathing, including wheezing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
  • Hives
  • Pale, cool, damp skin
  • Drowsiness, confusion, or loss of consciousness

How are they diagnosed?

Your health-care provider will ask about your history of symptoms and examine you.

You may have tests to find out which allergens are causing your symptoms. For most people, the best tests are skin scratch or prick tests. For these tests, your provider looks for reactions to tiny amounts of suspected allergens placed under your skin. In some cases you may have blood tests to look for antibodies to possible allergens.

How are they treated?

Mild symptoms may not need treatment. Or, depending on the type of allergy you have and your symptoms, your health-care provider may prescribe:

  • Decongestants
  • Antihistamines
  • Steroid medicine
  • Quick-acting, inhaled bronchodilators to treat breathing problems, or other types of inhaled medicines to prevent breathing problems.

In some cases, your provider may suggest allergy shots. A mixture is prepared that contains the allergens identified in your allergy tests. The mixture is injected into your skin in tiny but increasing amounts over the course of many months. Over time, the shots make you less sensitive to the allergens. Usually after four to six months of allergy shots, you will begin to have relief from your allergies. However, you will probably need to continue the shots for two to three years or longer.

If you have a severe allergic reaction, call 911 right away. Use an EpiPen if you have one, and then go to the emergency department. Once you know that you have a severe allergy, always carry an Epipen. Teach family members and co-workers how to help you if you have a severe reaction.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow your health-care provider's instructions. Try to avoid the things you are allergic to. If you tend to have severe allergy reactions, ask your provider about carrying medicine with you, such as an EpiPen for emergency use. Wear an ID, such as a Medic Alert bracelet, that lists your severe allergies.

How can I help prevent allergies?

There is no known way to prevent allergies. However, some research has shown that breast-fed babies may be less likely to develop allergies and asthma. Also, if your family has a very strong history of allergies, you might try to avoid your family's most common allergens. For example, you may need to stay away from cats. This might help stop you from developing severe symptoms. Cigarette smoke can make hay fever and asthma symptoms worse. You can help your symptoms by not smoking. It also helps to avoid being around others who are smoking.

How else can I control my environment?

If you have allergies, many things inside and outside your home can trigger or worsen allergy symptoms. You can lessen your allergy symptoms by trying to limit your contact with these allergy triggers and irritants, especially in places where you spend a lot of time, such as at home, school, or your office. Here are some things you can do:


Pollens from grasses, weeds, and some trees can be carried through the air for miles. These pollens land in the eyes, nose, and airways, causing the symptoms of allergies or asthma. Although it is hard to avoid pollens completely, some suggestions are:

  • Keep doors and windows shut in the pollen season. Use an air conditioner, if you have one, in your house and car. If a room air conditioner is used, recirculate the indoor air rather than pulling air in from outside. Wash or change air filters once a month. Do not use an attic fan.
  • After being outside during allergy season, shower and change your clothes right away.
  • Do not keep the dirty clothes in bedrooms because there may be pollen on the clothes.
  • Stay away from trees and grasses as much as you can in the pollen season. Dry your clothes in a vented dryer, not outside.


Molds are found year-round throughout the house, outdoors, and in foods, but especially in areas of high moisture. Molds blow around in the air, both outdoors and indoors. Bathrooms and damp basements are two common areas for mold growth. Mold is also very likely to grow in humidifiers and the refrigerator drip pan and crisper. Here are some ways to decrease mold growth:

  • In the bathroom, thoroughly clean the tile, floors, shower curtain, and tub on a routine basis. Also clean under the sink. Use a cleaning solution that kills molds. For example, you can use diluted household bleach (one cup of bleach to 10 cups of water).
  • Use paint rather than wallpaper on your walls. Enamel paint stops mold growth better than latex paint. An antifungal substance can be added to paints to keep mold from growing.
  • Dehumidifiers can help keep mold from growing in damp places such as basements.
  • Look for areas that become damp from hard rains, and fix any leaks that you find.
  • Evaporative coolers, vaporizers, and humidifiers with a reservoir are ideal places for mold and bacteria to grow. When these appliances are operating, molds and bacteria can be sprayed throughout the house. In general, these appliances are not recommended. If you do use one, empty the reservoir daily, clean it with soap and water, and dry it thoroughly. The reservoir should be refilled just before use.
  • Greenhouses, compost piles, and homes with many plants also frequently have molds.
  • Cover the potting soil of houseplants with foil to reduce the spread of mold spores.

House Dust

All kinds of things are in house dust, including dirt, insect debris, dust mites, dead skin, food crumbs, bacteria, and fungi. Dust collects on every item in the home, including mattresses, couches, clothes, rugs, drapes, and stuffed animals. It is hard to avoid house dust, but the following ideas will help:

  • Avoid clutter and dust catchers, particularly in the bedroom. These include knick-knacks, wall decorations (pictures, pennants, and fabric wall coverings), drapes, shades or blinds, stacks of books, and piles of papers or toys.
  • Keep the bedroom closet door closed. Vacuum the closet floor often. Store only in-season clothes in the closet.
  • Bare floors are best. You can replace carpet with washable, nonskid rugs. Damp mop the floors often. If you have carpet, vacuum often and thoroughly. Be sure to clean under the furniture and in the closet.
  • Mattresses, box springs, and pillows should be in coverings that are allergenproof (nonallergenic), such as plastic. Zippers or openings should be taped. Use only polyester pillows and wash them several times a year. Wash blankets, sheets, and pillowcases in very hot water 54.4 C (130 F) every week. Avoid products made of feather, wool, kapok, or foam.
  • Forced-air furnaces should have a dustfiltering system. Filters should be changed at least once a month during the heating season. Filters can be cut to cover room vents if the central furnace filters are not changed monthly. Cold and warm air ducts should be professionally cleaned at least every four to five years.
  • Use an air cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or an electrostatic filter. Keep the humidity in the house to 60 per cent or lower. It is best to have 30 per cent to 50 per cent humidity. Dehumidifiers or central air conditioners can take moisture out of the air if you live in a humid climate.
  • Try not to sleep or lie on cloth-covered cushions or furniture.
  • Don't keep carpets in bedrooms and remove any carpets laid on concrete, if you can. (Condensation collects between concrete and carpet.)
  • Keep stuffed toys out of the bed, or wash the toys weekly in hot water or in cooler water with detergent and bleach. Placing toys weekly in a dryer or freezer may help. Prolonged exposure to dry heat or freezing can kill mites but does not remove allergens.
  • If you usually get symptoms during housecleaning or yard work, wear a mask (available in drugstores) over your nose and mouth during these chores.


Dander is a substance found in animal saliva, dandruff, and urine. It causes allergic reactions in many people. You may be more sensitive to one type of animal (such as cats) than another. All furry animals can cause allergic reactions. Giving away a family pet is very hard, but if someone in your home is very sensitive, it may be necessary. Once the pet is gone, thoroughly clean the house. It is especially important to clean stuffed furniture, wall surfaces, rugs, drapes, and the heating/ cooling system. If you are sensitive to animals and have a pet, the pet should live outside or stay in just one part of the house and never be in the bedroom. Wash your hands after touching pets.

Audra Kolesar is a registered nurse and manager with Health Links - Info Santé, the Winnipeg Health Region's telephone health information service.

Wave: September / October 2011

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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