Whether you suffer from seasonal sneezes or a food allergy, odds are you’ve heard a lot of myths about what having an allergy really means. Here are a few common ones, debunked.
Myth 1. Feel the sniffles coming on? Just grab an allergy pill, and poof, they’re gone.
Sorry, but an allergy pill isn’t a magical fix for itchy eyes, hives, and the sniffles. What you’re probably taking in your average drugstore allergy pill is an antihistamine. Antihistamines, as the name suggests, combat histamine, which is one of the chemicals in your body that’s released whenever you experience a significant allergic reaction. Histamine usually triggers a runny nose, sneezing, and itching, says Dr. John Villacis, an allergist-immunologist at the Austin Diagnostic Clinic.
Antihistamines do work quickly, usually within a few hours. But most long acting antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and fexofenadine (Allegra), have fairly low effects, says Villacis. For optimal effectiveness, try starting them a few days before you anticipate actually needing them, and combining them with a nasal steroid, like Flonase, suggests Villacis.
Myth 2. Most children outgrow their allergies.
It’s true that, for some food allergies, like milk, wheat, soy, and eggs, about 80 percent of kids will outgrow them, says Dr. Suzanne Cassel, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. But for other foods, the allergy is usually there to stay: “That’s the case for peanut and tree nut allergies, where only maybe 20 percent will outgrow the allergy,” says Cassel. “And we don’t know why that is.”
When it comes to allergic rhinitis (a.k.a. itchy eyes, an itchy nose, sneezing, and postnasal drainage), if you have it as a child, it’ll probably carry on throughout your life, unless you are able to get desensitized through allergy shots, says Villacis.
Myth 3. If you’re allergic to cats or dogs, just go with a hypoallergenic breed.
Sorry, but there’s not really such a thing as a hypoallergenic dog or cat. Several pets have been labeled "hypoallergenic" because they have short hair or shed less than others. The problem is that what you’re actually allergic to is usually found in animals’ saliva, natural oils, or urine, not necessarily the hair itself, says Villacis.
Sometimes it may be true that a larger animal produces more allergens and therefore makes you sneeze or itch more. Cats are notoriously difficult for those with allergies because their saliva is very flaky and thin when it dries, says Villacis. It can stay suspended in the air and travel extensively. “The point is that you don't have to be holding or petting the animal to have allergy symptoms,” he says.
Myth 4. Those with “gluten allergies” eat healthier, so you should go gluten-free, too.
For starters, there’s no such thing as a gluten allergy, according to Cassel. (There is, however, such a thing as a wheat allergy.) An allergy is a reaction triggered by a specific antibody—the proteins that help us fight bugs—called Immunoglobulin E (IgE), she says. IgE antibodies bind to whatever you’re allergic to and cause all the features of an allergic reaction. “It’s an immediate, within minutes to an hour, and profound, multi-systemic reaction,” says Cassel.
When you have an allergic reaction, you’ll likely feel itching and swelling in you mouth and throat. You may experience flushing or hives all over, or itching, watering, redness, and swelling in your eyes. You may even immediately throw up. You could start coughing and sneezing and become short of breath. Your blood pressure could drop, and those with severe allergies may even pass out or risk death. “That’s what’s important,” says Cassel. “A true food allergy can kill you.”
There are other immunologic reactions to foods. One is celiac disease. These patients have an IgA—not an IgE—antibody to gluten, says Cassel. It, too, triggers an immunologic response, but it’s a local one, in the GI tract, rather than in your blood like a true allergy. The reaction from an IgA gluten antibody is also slower. In other words, gluten may give you a nasty stomachache and make you feel sick, but it won’t kill you.