Are you wondering if your persistent cold is really an allergy or if the rash on your hands is a reaction to a new skin cream you’re using? Figuring out if you have allergies is not always easy, but seeing a doctor and undergoing testing can help solve the puzzle.

More than 50 million Americans have allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s also the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, with an annual cost of $18 billion.

Defining allergies

“Allergies are reactions our bodies have to certain plants, foods or other environmental causes,” said Dr. Miranda Cordell with Novant Health Pediatrics South Ballantyne . “If someone is allergic, their body responds by releasing chemicals that cause specific symptoms.”

Many substances can cause allergic reactions and include pollen, animal dander, dust mites, certain foods, penicillin, insect stings, mold spores and latex.

The chemicals that trigger allergic reactions are known as allergens. Reaction to allergens can span the spectrum from merely annoying to life threatening. The CDC reports that the most common allergies include hay fever, asthma, conjunctivitis, hives, eczema, dermatitis and sinusitis.

Who’s at risk?

Anyone at any age can have allergies. Babies can be allergic to cow’s milk. Some adults can develop hives after taking a new medication.

Family history plays a role, too. “Allergies have a genetic component,” Cordell said. “If there is a strong family history of allergies, especially seasonal allergies, it’s more likely that children will inherit them.”

Cordell said there is a good chance children will outgrow food allergies, but typically not a peanut allergy.

Allergy symptoms

Cordell said in the case of seasonal allergies like hay fever, the most common symptoms are runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, and sneezing. Seasonal allergies typically occur in the spring, summer or fall. When the symptoms are year-round, they may be caused by exposure to indoor allergens, such as dust mites, indoor molds or pets.

The most common food allergies are caused by cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish and tree nuts. Food or insect allergies can sometimes result in serious reaction called anaphylaxis , which can lead to death. It usually comes on rapidly within minutes of exposure to the allergen. Anaphylaxis symptoms include flushing, light-headedness, chest-tightness, and tingling of the lips, palms of the hands or soles of the feet.

If not treated, this allergic reaction can progress into seizures, irregular heartbeat, shock and respiratory distress. Since anaphylaxis can be fatal, it requires immediate medical attention at a hospital emergency room and an injection of epinephrine, a drug used to treat severe allergic reactions.

Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the eyes react to allergens, causing them to redden and swell.

Eczema is an allergic reaction of the skin that causes itching, and reddening, flaking or peeling of the skin. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reports that symptoms begin in childhood for 80 percent of people with eczema. Also, more than 50 percent of people with eczema will develop asthma as well.

Hives are itchy red bumps on the skin that are often triggered by exposure to certain foods or medications.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and wheezing. Asthma is more prevalent in children. It may also be caused by a respiratory tract infection and exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke.

Diagnosing an allergy

To nail down your allergy, an allergist will conduct skin or blood testing to determine which substance is causing your problem.

Once your allergy triggers are identified, the allergist can help you establish a treatment plan that is right for you.

”There are a number of over-the-counter as well as prescription medications available for seasonal and environmental allergies, “Cordell said. “ These include oral antihistamines and nasal steroid sprays.”

Sometimes, the physician will recommend allergy shots. Cordell said allergy shots, or immunotherapy, can be especially helpful for seasonal allergies if patients do not respond to treatment with oral medications or nasal steroids. Immunotherapy may also be recommended for those with an allergy to an insect sting.

Benadryl, which is sedating, is effective for food-related allergies and rashes as well as runny noses. Allegra and Claritin are two nonsedating antihistamines also sold over the counter.

Other strategies to tackle allergies are to stay away from the triggers as much as possible, especially with food allergies, said Cordell. She said often those with food or insect allergies will be required to carry a device with injectable epinephrine, like an EpiPen.

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Tips for prevention

If you’re allergic to pollens, keep the windows closed in your home and car and stay indoors as much as possible. Go outside in the early morning or late afternoon. Shower when you come in from the outside and before going to bed to remove pollen.

You don’t necessarily have to get rid of your pet if you are allergic to its dander. Have someone who is not allergic brush its coat outside to get rid of the dander. Vacuum frequently and keep the pet out of the bedroom.

If you are allergic to dust mites, wrap your bedding in plastic. Wash sheets in hot water, not warm. Consider replacing carpeting with hardwood flooring.

For mold allergies, reduce humidity in your home. Keep the basement well-ventilated, remove carpeting and run a dehumidifier.

Read food labels carefully to make sure you are not eating foods to which you are allergic. If you have a severe food allergy, make sure you carry injectable epinephrine (sold under brand names that include EpiPen) with you at all times.

People with latex allergies should use vinyl or nitrile gloves.

People with allergies to wasp, bee and fire ant stings should avoid brightly colored clothes and perfume when outdoors. Be careful when cooking and eating outdoors, because it attracts these insects.