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The Hidden Risk for Allergy Sufferers

By Jacquelyn Buffo, MS, LPC, CAADC

June 21, 2023

Allergy Dangers

It’s springtime, and many people believe that this is the most wonderful time of the year! During this time of year, though, we aren’t getting bombarded with presents and never-ending feasts. Instead, we are being bombarded with cottonwood and pollen, which can trigger annoying allergy symptoms for many people. If you are one of the many people struggling with allergies, you are not alone. Today you are going to learn more about allergies, including what they are, how prevalent they are in the United States, symptoms, treatment options, and how they contribute to other disorders such as depression.

What is an allergy?

Allergies come in a variety of forms. Some people experience seasonal allergies that only affect them during particular times of the year, while other people have specific allergies to things such as foods and insect bites. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an allergy is when your immune system identifies something in your environment as threatening and overreacts to it. An allergen refers to the item in your environment that triggers your immune system and causes symptoms. An allergen can trigger your immune system by inhaling something into your lungs, touching something, injecting something into your body, or eating something your body deems as a threat.

Common allergy symptoms

Allergy symptoms can range in intensity, severity, and duration and are dependent upon factors that are unique to you, including your overall health, lifestyle, and medical status. However, common allergy symptoms include:

  • A rash
  • Hives
  • Itchy or scratchy throat
  • A runny nose
  • Itchy eyes

In certain cases, symptoms of an allergic reaction can be severe and can even be life-threatening. Severe symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • Having an asthma attack
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Low blood pressure

If you experience any of the severe symptoms listed above, it is important to seek medical care immediately.

Types of allergies

Allergies known as outdoor/indoor allergies (also known as season allergies) refer to airborne allergies that usually occur during specific times of the year like spring and fall; these are sometimes referred to as “hay fever” or “rose fever.” Common sources of outdoor/indoor allergies include:

  • Weed, grass, and tree pollen
  • Dust mites
  • Dander from both cats and dogs
  • Mold spores
  • Cockroaches
  • Rodent urine

Common skin allergies include poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, latex, and certain foods; symptoms can include hives, skin inflammation, and eczema.

For some people, certain foods can trigger an allergic reaction. Most food allergies are caused by the following nine foods:

  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Sesame
  • Fish
  • Milk

Prevalence of allergies in the United States

Allergies can contribute to the development and exacerbation of chronic illnesses. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States. You may struggle with allergies yourself or know someone who does because allergies are incredibly common across the country. More than 100 million Americans experience a variety of allergies every year. Roughly 81 million people in 2021 were diagnosed with hay fever which includes 14 million children and 67 million adults. Research shows that individuals diagnosed with hay fever have increased over the past several years and that it will continue to increase due to environmental factors.

It may be surprising to learn that despite allergies being the most common diseases in the United States, they are often minimized. One in five people are diagnosed with a skin allergy, and it is more common in females than in males. As of 2021, approximately 20 million people in the U.S. have a food allergy; this includes 16 million adults and 4 million children. A latex allergy is not as common as other allergies with 4.3% of the general population having a latex allergy. Insect allergies are slightly more common than a latex allergy with 5% of the population reporting an insect allergy.

Treatment options for allergy sufferers

Like many other diseases, there is no cure for allergies. However, allergies can be effectively managed and treated. There are three primary ways to treat your allergies, and they include:

  1. Medications: These can include decongestants, antihistamines, nasal corticosteroids, oral corticosteroids, epinephrine, and corticosteroid skin ointments and creams.
  2. Allergy avoidance: Avoid places and areas where your allergens are present and remove allergens from your home.
  3. Immunotherapy: This method is appropriate for some individuals and it works by introducing the allergens systematically into your body to decrease your sensitivity to the allergen; this is done via a shot or sublingually.

Everyone’s treatment plan is different. If you suffer from allergies, talk to your doctor about options that may be suitable for you and your needs.

Mental health and allergies

Allergies can make you more vulnerable to other health challenges and this includes mental health disorders. Researchers have actually found a link between seasonal allergies (hay fever) and increased risk for depression and suicidal behavior. Researchers believe that the link between seasonal allergies and depression/suicidal behaviors involves a combination of social, biological, and environmental factors.

For example, the cells in the immune system of individuals who experience hay fever are compromised which can be a risk factor for developing psychiatric disorders. Additionally, allergies can impact the neurotransmitters in the brain, your hormonal functioning, and lead to sleep and behavioral problems which can lead to the development of mental health disorders like depression. Finally, seasonal allergies can significantly impact your ability to function daily and your overall quality of life. They can make it difficult to be productive at work, at home, and in relationships which can contribute to the development of certain psychiatric disorders.

Depression

Depression is a common mental health disorder and anyone can experience depression. Symptoms of depression can vary from person to person. Below is a list of common depression symptoms:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Decreased motivation and energy
  • Anhedonia (loss of pleasure in pleasant activities)
  • An increase or decrease in appetite
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Low mood and feelings of sadness

To be diagnosed with depression, symptoms must be present almost every day for at least two weeks straight. Symptoms can range in severity from mild to severe and there are different types of depression. Only a licensed doctor/mental health professional can diagnose you with depression. It is important to note that depression is a vulnerability factor for suicide so If you think you may be experiencing depression symptoms, talk to your doctor. Together, you can create a treatment plan suitable to your needs.

Prevalence of depression in the United States

Major depressive disorder (MDD) affects roughly 6.7% of the U.S. population, which is approximately 15.7 million people. It is also estimated that depression impacts 5% of the world’s population which equates to roughly 280 million people. Additionally, depression is nearly 50% more common in women than in men. Pregnant and postpartum women are at an increased risk for developing depression symptoms with approximately 10% of postpartum women experiencing depression.

Treatment options for depression

Fortunately, depression can be effectively treated. Your treatment plan is going to be unique and specific to you. Factors that you and your healthcare professional will consider when creating your treatment plan include things like your medical status, lifestyle habits, family history, and other underlying mental or behavioral health disorders.

Depression can be treated in many ways. Usually, psychotherapy is the first line of treatment for depression. Common psychotherapy treatment modalities include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Behavioral activation
  • Problem-solving therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy

You and your therapist will work together to develop cognitive and behavioral skills to help you effectively prevent and manage your depressive symptoms.

Psychotherapy can help you develop cognitive and behavioral strategies and skills that help you effectively tolerate and work through symptoms of depression. Another line of treatment for depression is medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are anti-depressant medications that are commonly used to treat certain types of depression.

Common SSRIs prescribed in the treatment of depression include:

  • Setraline
  • Fluoxetine
  • Citalopram
  • Vilazodone
  • Paroxetine
  • Excitalopram

Additional strategies that can help you effectively manage your depression symptoms include:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Develop a list of fulfilling hobbies to help occupy your time.
  • Reduce your use of substances such as alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Get high-quality rest and develop a regular sleep routine.
  • Develop and strengthen your support system with family and friends.
  • Ask for help when you need it.

Your mental health is important, and it impacts every area of your life. If you are having thoughts of suicide, talk to someone immediately about what you are experiencing. Be willing to receive help to improve your mental health and work with a trusted healthcare provider to create a treatment plan that addresses your symptoms. Be open to interventions suggested by your healthcare professional, such as therapy and medication. If you need help paying for your prescription medication, ScriptSave WellRx can help you save money on your prescriptions. You can use the prescription savings card and save as much as 80% on medications.

Jacquelyn B. began writing at the age of 10 when she won a county-wide essay contest explaining why her mother is worth her weight in gold. Since that time, she has written for several newspapers and a health and wellness blog. Her education and experience is in mental health and addiction. She is a licensed counselor and currently provides therapeutic services on an outpatient basis. Her counseling and substance abuse experience includes inpatient residential, in-home, and early recovery counseling. She is a certified addiction specialist and is working on obtaining her certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. She also specializes in working with pregnant and post-partum women and has received advanced training on women's health.

Resources:

  1. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2023). Allergy facts.
  2. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2018). Allergy treatments.
  3. Brenner, L.A. et al. (2017). Mental health in allergic rhinitis. Current Treatment Options in Allergy, 4(1), p. 71-97.
  4. The World Health Organization. (2023). Depressive disorder (depression).
  5. Chu, A. & Wadhwa, R. (2023). Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
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