10 Common Allergy Myths

Person sneezing into a tissue
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For many people, allergy season arrives with a shudder of sneezes. For doctors, this can mean a flurry of visits from confused patients disoriented from medications and myths. Misconceptions about the causes and symptoms of allergies are as abundant as fairy tales. Dr. Andrea Schmieg, a physician at Little Falls Family Practice in Falls Church, Virginia, says it’s common for allergy sufferers to misunderstand their ailments.

“I think it is confusing for patients as to when to get tested and how to get tested," she says. "First, there can be perplexity in the literature. Skin tests used to diagnose can be painful, while blood tests can cast too wide a net and result in false positives. Other tests are often not reimbursed by insurance companies.” Here’s a look at some of the more common allergy misconceptions in need of a good myth busting. (As always, consult the advice of a physician about any allergic reactions.)

1
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You can't be allergic to organic food

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You might think that food grown organically would be free of allergens, but this is a misconception. Organic foods may be free of harmful pesticides, but they aren’t free of the proteins that cause allergic reactions. About 60 million Americans, or one in four, are afflicted with allergies. As defined by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an “allergy is characterized by an overreaction of the human immune system to a foreign protein substance ('allergen') that is eaten, breathed into the lungs, injected or touched. This immune overreaction can result in symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose and scratchy throat.” More severe symptoms include rash, hives, asthma and even death.

2
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Allergic reactions are rarely serious

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Unfortunately, allergies can sometimes prove fatal. Some people can be so sensitive to some allergens that they go into anaphylactic shock. This is a severe, whole-body reaction that can result in nausea, hives, abdominal cramps, and possibly constriction of the airways. Many people prone to these dangerous attacks carry an epinephrine autoinjector, which is a medical device that can quickly administer epinephrine, or adrenaline. If someone goes into anaphylactic shock and does not have medication on hand, experts say you should call 911 and to begin rescue breathing and CPR if necessary.

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Food allergies are extremely common

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The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) notes that perhaps the biggest misconception people have about allergies pertains to food. As the AAFP reports, “Although 25 percent of people think they're allergic to certain foods, studies show that about only 6 percent of children and 1 to 2 percent of adults have a food allergy.” So why is there a higher number of people who believe they suffer from allergies? Most people are actually suffering from a food intolerance or sensitivity. A food sensitivity does not incite an allergic reaction in the body. Further, most people with food allergies are actually allergic to less than four foods.

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It's all in your head

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Anyone who suffers from allergies can attest that their headaches, sneezing, runny noses and hives are not the result of a psychosomatic reaction. So why is it that some people insist that you’re making up your symptoms? As Dr. Andrew Weil told Discovery Health, “Emotional stress can precipitate allergic reactions, and relaxation techniques can moderate them. A person who is strongly allergic to roses, for example, may react to the sight of a plastic rose, demonstrating the involvement of the mind and the brain.” In other words, you’re not making anything up, but your brain might trick you into thinking that you are.

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Food allergies cause hyperactivity

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As the American Academy of Family Physicians points out, a sudden onset of allergy symptoms can make a people feel as if “impending doom” is right around the corner. These symptoms can include “swelling, itchy skin, itchiness or tingling in the mouth, or a metallic taste, coughing, trouble breathing or wheezing, throat tightness, diarrhea and vomiting.” But while these symptoms can make a person feel extremely ill, they will not make a person hyperactive. Also, it is possible the side effects from certain allergy and asthma medications can contribute to a feeling of restlessness or hyperactivity.

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Pet fur triggers allergies

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A pet allergy, by definition, “is an allergic reaction to proteins found in an animal's skin cells, saliva or urine.” People are most commonly affected by the dead skin cells, or dander, that an animal sheds. While animals with fur can incite reactions, sufferers are not actually reacting to their fur. According to the Mayo Clinic, an allergic reaction to a pet usually resembles hay fever with symptoms of sneezing, running nose and asthma. Pet allergies are also common among people who suffer from other allergies. As the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports, “from 15 percent to 30 percent of people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs.”

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Allergic to sugar?

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Many people associate food allergies with substances that make them feel sick. And because feeling ill can be linked with sugar indulgences or binges, some often claim an allergic reaction to the sweet stuff. But as the American Academy of Family Physicians reports, “a condition is called a food allergy when the immune system (the part of the body that fights infections) thinks a certain protein in a food is a 'foreign' agent and fights against it. This doesn't happen with sugars and fats.” So that uncomfortable feeling you may experience after consuming sugar might be a food sensitivity, but it is not an allergic reaction.

8
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Covering up will protect you from poison ivy

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The consequences of contact with poison ivy can be severe. Urushiol, the oil from this itch-causing plant, can trigger an allergic reaction and cause an uncomfortable rash. Like its close cousins — poison sumac and poison oak — poison ivy can create some itchy days. Urushiol oil is extremely potent and can last for a long time. As MNN has reported, “Only 1 nanogram of urushiol oil — a billionth of a gram — is needed to cause a reaction. The oil stays active for one to five years on a dead plant.” And if the oil gets on your clothes and is transferred to your skin, you are exposed. Experts at poison-ivy.org urge people to throw away their clothes if they have been exposed to the plant. And if the clothing is too precious to toss, they urge you to wash it twice before wearing.

9
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One small bite is OK

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“Less than one little bite can cause a severe reaction in some with a food allergy," according the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "Some individuals with food allergies have experienced reactions to trace amounts of the allergen in the food.” Simply consuming less of a food will not lessen your allergic reaction. In fact, some people are so sensitive to certain foods — most commonly peanuts — that they fear the consequences of boarding a airplane, where recirculated air will put them in contact with hostile allergens.

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Local honey will help

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According to Discovery Health, “There have been no peer-reviewed scientific studies that have conclusively proven whether honey actually reduces allergies.” Yahoo Health concurs, citing a recent clinical trial that found that consuming local honey did not help flight allergy symptoms. First, local honey is much more likely to be unprocessed and contain allergens that will trigger symptoms. Ultimately, consider that “bees only pollinate flowers, while many types of pollen that cause spring allergies come from trees, weeds and grass.” While honey is a tasty option to fight your allergy symptoms, it may just be no more than a sweet placebo.