Stop for a second to take a look around. No matter where you are right now, odds are that at least one person nearby is dealing with some sort of allergy. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, and more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies annually.
But just like any other health condition, it’s not always easy to spot when an allergy attack is happening. Typical symptoms of allergies like a runny nose and watery eyes often get confused with a cold or the flu, and people don’t always know to look out for less common and more serious symptoms like headaches, a swollen tongue, and hearing loss. Herein, we spoke to allergy experts to round up some of the most commonly ignored allergy symptoms that people need to pay attention to.
If you find yourself suffering from headaches on a weekly or even daily basis and can’t figure out why, you might have your allergies to blame. According to Dr. Tania Elliott, MD, an allergist and spokesperson for Flonase, allergies that begin in the nose often end up affecting the noggin as well.
“Allergies cause inflammation and swelling of the sinuses and nasal passages,” she explains. “When this happens, there is an increased production of mucus, which then fills up your sinuses. This buildup of fluid leads to headaches.” And since chronic headaches can lead to serious issues like depression, it’s important to talk to your allergist as soon as you notice an uptick in the number of headaches you’re experiencing.
In patients with severe food allergies, constipation is one of the most common symptoms. This is especially the case with young children; per one study published in the journal Developmental Period Medicine, approximately 73 percent of children ages three and under who visited a Polish hospital for constipation from 1998 to 2008 were subsequently diagnosed with an allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk.
According to Stanford Health Care, constipation can cause serious health issues like rectal prolapse—in which the large intense detaches inside the body—and fecal impaction—in which hard, dry stool gets stuck inside the body and has to be removed by a doctor, and so you should see a professional sooner rather than later if you’re having trouble going to the bathroom.
“Allergies can make you feel like you are a constant zombie,” says Elliott. Because allergies cause swelling in the nasal passages, people suffering from them typically mouth breathe while they sleep and, as a result, experience lapses in quality oxygen intake throughout the night.
“People with allergies wake up often, whether they realize it or not, and they wake up [in the morning] not feeling rested.” The sleep disruptions associated with allergies are so bad, in fact, that some people who leave the condition untreated end up developing sleep apnea.
With the immune system working in overdrive and a lack of sleep preventing the body from getting the rest it needs, it’s little surprise that folks with allergies often deal with bouts of forgetfulness and memory impairment. “Constant headaches and poor sleep add up over time and make you feel like you are not your best self,” explains Elliott. Your memory is something you rely on at work, at home, and in your day-to-day life, so don’t hesitate to head to the doctor if and when your mind starts to get foggy.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, cramps and stomach pain are both relatively common and yet all-too-often ignored symptoms of food allergies. Depending on the severity of the allergy, most doctors recommend for folks with a food allergy to either limit their intake of said food or to avoid the food completely—and if they don’t abide by these recommendations, they risk going into anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal.
“Rashes like eczema can often be triggered by allergies,” explains Dr. Purvi Parikh, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist with The Allergy & Asthma Network. Allergens like pet dander and dust mite are especially triggering for people with eczema, and as the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology explains, approximately half of all patients with eczema also suffer from hay fever and food allergies. If left untreated, eczema can lead to more serious complications like bacterial skin infections, viral skin infections, and sleep problems.
Do you have droopiness under your eyes that won’t go away no matter how much sleep you get? You might have allergies to thank for that. As the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology explains, “Nasal allergies may promote swelling of the adenoids (lymph tissue that lines the back of the throat and extends behind the nose) and this results in a tired and droopy appearance.”
When allergy-related nasal congestion goes untreated, it can sometimes lead to anosmia, or a reduced sense of smell. This impairment is caused by “the chronic inflammation of the tissues and turbinates, dilation of blood vessels, and a stuffy nose,” says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and pediatrician.
“Allergies lead to the dilation of your blood vessels, which become visible underneath your eyes where the skin is very thin. We refer to these as allergic shiners,” says Elliott. “You can also get a characteristic wrinkle in your nose from rubbing it frequently. If you see a horizontal line right above your nostrils, you likely have allergies.” While these allergic shiners aren’t fatal by any means, they do make sufferers feel less confident in their appearance—and seeing as they’re easy to get rid of with treatment, there’s no reason why you should suffer.
“Sense of smell and taste tend to go hand in hand, and when you can’t smell, it can impair or alter your sense of taste,” says Shainhouse. “Allergy sufferers may think food tastes off or needs salt or heat or spices because they can’t taste anything or because flavors have become significantly dulled.” Not only is this frustrating, but all that extra sodium and spice could lead to unintentional overeating and some serious weight gain.
You sit down for a nice lobster dinner, and as soon as you take your first bite, you suddenly start to feel like you’re having a heart attack. The good news? Your heart is probably fine. The bad news? It’s likely that you’re having a severe allergic reaction to your food—one that requires immediate treatment. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, other symptoms that accompany a severe allergic reaction to food include shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, a weak pulse, and a sense of “impending doom.”
If you haven’t ever experienced anaphylactic shock, then it might surprise you to learn that it isn’t unlike having a panic attack. “If you often experience what you think are panic attacks and you don’t know what exactly may be the cause, pay attention to what is changing in your environment,” says Sonia Bell, a dermatologist and general practitioner. What you think are panic attacks could actually be an allergy symptom in disguise—a symptom that, if left untreated, could be fatal.
“Fluid backing up from the nose and nasal sinuses into the Eustachian tubes in the ears can lead to reduced sound wave propagation and decreased hearing,” explains Shainhouse. With treatment, your hearing will come back without a problem—but if you put off seeing the doctor, it’s possible that your ears will stay clogged for quite a while.
While uncommon, it is possible for things like food allergies and bee stings to cause swelling in the tongue, or angioedema. Since a swollen tongue can make it harder to breathe, this symptom—regardless of whether or not it’s the result of an allergy—should always be considered an emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
Clogged nasal passageways turn allergy sufferers into mouth breathers. This, in turn, “dehydrates the lips and leaves them chapped, dry, and cracked,” says Shainhouse. It’s often one of the primary allergy symptoms that doctors will see in patients who have gone a long time undiagnosed.
One of the most deceiving allergy symptoms is an itchy, swollen throat. Why? Well, while most allergies are pretty straightforward, a sore, swollen throat could be a sign of a slightly more complicated condition. “For some people who are allergic to ragweed, if they eat a banana, their mouth starts to itch or their throat can feel like it’s swelling,” explained Mary C. Tobin, MD, an allergist at Rush Medical Center.
This phenomenon is called pollen-food allergy syndrome, or oral allergy syndrome, and it causes people with allergies to certain plant proteins to also experience allergies to certain fruits and vegetables. According to Rush, approximately 50 percent of adults with seasonal allergies have oral allergy syndrome, and the condition accounts for nearly 60 percent of food-related allergic reactions in adulthood.
“If your allergy is serious enough, it can lead to constriction of the respiratory tract, which in turn causes hoarseness in your voice,” explains Bell. “Air struggles to get out of the body and causes low modulations of ligaments—and in this case, antihistamines will help get rid of the problem.” Since a hoarse voice = constricted breathing, it’s important that anyone experiencing hoarseness get their vocal chords checked out by a doctor as soon as they can.
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