Allergens can be simply defined as substances that induce allergic reactions. Allergic reactions are hyper-reactive responses of the immune system, causing symptoms. People can have allergic reactions to many different substances.
What are allergens?
Substances defined as allergens are generally nontoxic to the majority of individuals who lack sensitivity to that substance. In contrast, toxins are substances that cause harm to all living things, to one degree or another. Types of allergies and the degree of reactions vary widely. The most common allergic reactions occur to airborne substances such as dust, mold, pollen, and animal dander. Allergic reactions of the skin can be manifested directly (as with poison ivy) or can be a reflection of an internal allergic response (as in the case of a drug reaction or a bee sting).
Typical symptoms of allergic reactions include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, itching and swelling of the skin and mucous membranes. Severe reactions include difficulty breathing and shock. Onset of symptoms associated with an allergic reaction is immediate.
Allergic reactions to foods can be severe, but true food allergies are not actually all that common. True food allergies must be differentiated from food sensitivities, which are relatively common. Food sensitivities are generally associated with gastrointestinal dysfunction and immune hyper-stimulation. Typically, multiple foods are involved. Unlike symptoms of true allergy which are immediate, symptoms of food sensitivities are highly variable, nonspecific and generally delayed for hours or even days from the time the food is consumed.
Almost anything can cause an allergic reaction. Everyone has allergies to something. Mine is a most convenient allergy—contact of my skin with raw shrimp causes an immediate and intense allergic reaction with itching and swelling, but as long as someone else heads, peels, cleans, and cooks them for me, I can eat all I want. My son’s allergy is even more convenient— his reaction to poison ivy is severe enough to get him out of most of the yard work. In some rare individuals, allergies can be life-threatening. Even brief exposure can mean a trip to the hospital or death.
Reducing your risk of allergic reactions
For most individuals, however, allergies are a non-life-threatening irritation. In average people, allergies become a significant problem only when the immune system becomes dysfunctional. Other factors of disease including poor diet, toxins, stress and microbes can contribute to immune dysfunction. Immune dysfunction contributes to other disease processes such as atherosclerosis and arthritis—everything is interrelated.
The obvious way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the offending allergen, but when the immune system is in a hyper-reactive state, exposure to a single trigger can set off a cascade of reactions. Allergy testing can be beneficial for identifying specific allergens, but better health practices in general are beneficial for calming a hyper-stimulated immune system and reducing the intensity and frequency of allergic reactions.