After a long, cold winter and a chilly, wet spring in many parts of the country, everyone is looking forward to the warmer months, right?
If you’re one of the millions of Americans with allergies, you’re probably bracing yourself for another stretch of sneezing and wheezing.
But just why is it that breathing in tree pollen or eating a tomato can make your skin break out in hives?
“Our skin is living tissue and therefore reacts to antigens similarly to the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract, or any other target of allergic reactions,” said Bettina Newman, a registered dietician in Chesapeake, Va., with 27 years’ experience. She is the national nutritional consultant for the American Medican Testing Lab in Hollywood, Fla., which performs the antigen leukocyte cellular antibody test, or ALCAT, to identify sensitivities to foods, coloring, chemicals and mold.
Danish Dr. Lene Hoj researched skin reactions, giving some insight into the way allergies affect the skin, Newman said.
“When the mast cells in the lower layers of the skin react with an antigen they degranulate and release chemicals that cause the tiny blood vessels that lie around these cells to leak plasma into the skin,” she said.
The reaction produces what many allergy sufferers know well — the itchy little bumps known as hives. Excessive seepage can produce a more pronounced puffiness called angioedema, Newman said.
Dr. Alan Kling, a New York City dermatologist and assisting clinical professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, said he’s also seen allergy-related eczema, typically in the folds of the arms or behind the knees, that seems to be a result of exposure to pollen, ragweed or dust — all common allergens. In adults, allergies can cause nummular dermatitis, identified by its coin-like shape, he said.
True to its name, contact dermatitis can result from contact between the skin and something to which the patient is allergic. Kling has seen everything — from a red, itchy rash caused by nickel in a watchband, to swollen eyelids caused by quick contact with still-tacky nail polish.
And many people have reactions after exposure to poison ivy, oak or sumac, which secrete a resin that triggers the itchy response, he said.
Allergies may have a genetic basis, said Dr. Nick Nonas, a Denver-based allergist and contributor to WholeHealthMD.com, which is a drkoop.com sponsor. Other factors that can predispose a person to allergic reactions are: poor nutrition, exposure to environmental pollutants, overuse of decongestant nasal sprays, use of oral contraceptives, thyroid conditions, and hormonal disturbances related to pregnancy.
Experts agree that a trip to the allergist or dermatologist is the first step to take if you have a persistent rash, itchiness, blotches or hives. A clear diagnosis that pinpoints what triggers your allergic reaction lets you know what to avoid. And avoidance is probably your best bet for decreasing the severity of the symptoms. That’s a lot easier for food allergy sufferers than those with environmental triggers.
Newman said she’s seen marked improvement in atopic dermatitis, atopic eczema, urticaria (hives), acne and psoriasis when someone allergic to a specific food eliminates the item from his or her diet. Eggs, peanuts, cow’s milk, soy, fish and wheat account for most skin reactions in children with food allergies, she said.
With adults, anything from the food to the additives that preserve or color it can trigger a reaction. And some reactions to foods, colorings and additives don’t appear until 72 hours after ingestion, she said.
“Obviously, it is very difficult for an individual to identify the source of the problem if the reaction is delayed,” Newman said. She says the ALCAT blood test can be very helpful in such situations.
And food allergy sufferers should be aware they don’t have to eat a food for it to affect their skin.
“I never will forget the pitiful sight of a baker’s hands who turned out to be allergic to wheat!” Newman said.
While some symptoms — such as runny nose and itchy red eyes — are annoying, hives and the anaphylactic reaction that may follow can quickly become life threatening and should be taken seriously.
“I’d see a doctor if it’s anything other than mild,” Kling said.
However, there are some at-home remedies than can soothe less-serious skin conditions associated with allergies.
Kling suggests trying over-the-counter cortisone preparations for external itching and rashes. He cautioned that patients should visit a dermatologist if the condition doesn’t seem to improve because some allergic reactions can mimic a flare-up of psoriasis and other skin conditions best diagnosed by a professional.
Newman suggested Florasone, a product made by Boericke & Tafel, for itching, irritation and rashes. You’re likely to find it in a health food store.
Those hoping to skirt the drowsiness and dry mouth that over-the-counter antihistamines can produce could try all-natural methods available at health food stores, according to Nonas. The flavonoid supplement quercetin helps prevent the body’s release of histamines and can be combined with bromelain, a pineapple-plant derivative, to soothe the mucous membranes. Quercetin also works well in combination with the herb nettle, or stinging nettle, to help quell sneezing and itching, Nonas said.
It’s best to check with your physician first and have the rash properly diagnosed before trying any of these over-the-counter remedies, the experts say.
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