An allergen is a substance that causes an allergic reaction. Some examples of common allergens are dust mites, cat dander and pollen. Sometimes people can have severe allergic reactions to these substances that can lead to breathing problems (including serious asthma exacerbations) and even death. More often they cause bothersome symptoms such as runny nose, congestion and fatigue.
Detecting The Allergen That Is Making You Sick
The best way to detect an allergen is through IgE blood testing, according to Dr. Robert Reinhardt, MD, Associate Professor at Michigan State University and Senior Director of Medical and Regulatory Affairs and Quality Management at Phadia, U.S. Inc.
IgE is an immunoglobulin, a protein that acts as part of our immune system, detecting foreign substances such as viruses, bacteria and allergens. IgE is an immunoglobulin which tends to overreact in response to an allergen, this results in an allergy.
Specific IgE testing, (also called ImmunoCAP), can help you and your doctor discover which allergens are causing your symptoms. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Reinhardt, this test is underused by physicians who are more likely to prescribe medications to treat allergy symptoms. This despite guidelines by the National Institutes of Health recommending IgE testing.
"Eighty percent of asthma and allergy care is given by primary care physicians and pediatricians. These doctors are overwhelmed by clinical guidelines. Asthma guidelines alone are over 400 pages. Education around guidelines is often provided to doctors by pharmaceutical companies so they become well versed in administering medications but not in other aspects of the guidelines," Dr. Reinhardt said.
So what does all this mean to you, the patient? It means you may have to request these blood tests from your physician. Dr. Reinhardt recommends that patients become familiar with the results of their lab results. "Patients should know their IgE levels the same way that diabetics know their blood sugar or some people know their cholesterol," he says. Once you've discovered what you are allergic to you can start eliminating it.
Removing the Allergen From Your Environment
Your physician should assist you in eliminating or reducing the amount of exposure to the allergen that triggers your symptoms. There are many options. The Asthma and Allergy Network Mothers of Asthmatics has developed a kit called The Family Air Care Indoor Allergens and Mold Kit. By taking samples of the dust around your home you can receive a detailed report telling what allergens are in your home. The kit in conjunction with blood testing can tell you what allergens need to be removed from your home.
The Bedroom Should Be a Safe Zone
Removing the allergens is sometimes easier said than done. According to Dr. Reinhardt, the most important place to get rid of allergens is in the bedroom. Most people spend 6 to 12 hours in the bedroom sleeping so it is important to make this a "safe zone." Depending on the severity of your symptoms this might mean that you just need to keep Fluffy the kitty out of the bedroom. Clean the room thoroughly to get rid of residual pet dander including all of your bedding. Steam cleaning and dry cleaning may be necessary. If these measures fail, you need to get rid of your pet -- let your doctor be your guide.
Removing other allergens may be easier, (emotionally anyway), dust mites, for example, can be controlled by diligent cleaning, again, especially in the bedroom. This includes curtains, blinds, and all bedding. Some sources recommend encasing your bedding in a plastic or rubber wrapping. It is also important to dehumidify your home since dust mites thrive in humid environments.
Mold can be difficult to remove. Mold grows in moist areas, it may have grown in an area where you have had water damage from plumbing problems or flooding. Sometimes it just grows because the air is so humid, again a dehumidifier may he helpful. The first step in removing mold is to make sure that everything is dried out. The EPA has specific guidelines for removing mold in their article Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings. Although the article says it's specifically for commercial buildings the EPA also recommends these guidelines for removing mold from your home.
This article has only covered some of the more common allergy/asthma triggers. Once you find out what your trigger is, you will need to talk with your doctor and research ways to decrease exposure to the trigger and thereby improve your health.
Asthma and Allergy Network Mothers of Asthmatics. Readin', Writin' and Breathin'. Accessed: June 4, 2011 from http://www.aanma.org/2011/02/national-healthy-schools-day-april-11
Interview-Rob Reinhardt MD,Associate Professor, Michigan State University and Senior Director of Medical and Regulatory Affairs and Quality Management at Phadia, U.S. Inc. by Kristin Hayes. August 2009.