More than 50 million people suffer from allergies in the United States each year. An allergy is an abnormal immune response to certain things in the environment, which are generally harmless to most people. These things are called allergens. Allergens are defined as any substance that triggers an allergic response. When allergies affect the ears, nose, and throat, the symptoms are referred to as otolaryngic allergies.
Allergy symptoms include a wide range of physiological responses. Symptoms may present themselves either suddenly or gradually, and the presence and severity of each symptom may vary from person to person. Symptoms related to ear, nose, and throat allergens include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Constant sneezing
- Itching sensation in the eyes, nose, and throat
- Reduced ability to smell or taste
- Frequent ear infections and sinus infections
- Frequent, unexplained nosebleeds
- Experiencing cold-like symptoms for more than 10 days
- Constantly feeling fatigued
- Symptoms that recur at the same time every year
If left untreated, allergies may cause complications such as chronic cough, head congestion, recurring infection in the ears and sinus, hearing loss, and may even lead to asthma.
Healthcare providers who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of ear, nose, and throat conditions are called Otolaryngologists, and allergies are among the most common problems which they diagnose and treat. Diagnosing an allergy is typically performed by first analyzing your medical history and performing a physical examination. Your doctor will want to track any symptoms you’ve had in the past that could be related to the allergy as well as the timing of the symptoms. For example, you will be asked if you experience symptoms seasonally or year-round or if symptoms occur occasionally, perhaps as a result of exposure to irritants such as mold, animals, or dust mites.
Your doctor will also want to perform a physical examination that evaluates the head and neck for signs of allergies. He/she will also be looking for alternative explanations for your symptoms in addition to conditions that may interfere with treatment, such as a deviated septum.
The only way to firmly diagnose an allergy is to perform an allergy test. The most common allergy testing method is a skin test, because it is quick and reliable. During a skin test, your doctor will expose your skin to possible allergens and track how your body responds. There are three types of skin tests: skin prick test, intradermal test, and patch test. In some cases, a blood test may be preferable to confirm an allergy diagnosis. Talk to your doctor regarding specific instructions before conducting allergy testing.
Your Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Allergist may recommend the following treatments depending on your specific diagnosis. When reasonable, your doctor will recommend that you avoid or remove the identified allergen from your environment. Additionally, allergy medication has proved to be very effective for patients diagnosed with allergies. Some examples of allergy medications include:
Nasal sprays, including steroid or antihistamine sprays
- Oral antihistamines
- Leukotriene inhibitors
If avoidance of the allergen or allergy medications do not ease symptoms, your Otolaryngic Allergist may recommend a treatment option called immunotherapy. The practice of immunotherapy to treat allergies attempts to alter the body’s response to an identified allergen through small, regular doses of the allergen. Doses are given either through injection or, in some cases, by placing the allergen under the tongue. Over time, the body may change the way it responds to these allergens, alleviating symptoms and reducing the need for medication. Immunotherapy is the only method of treatment which has potential to alter the underlying disease - all other methods seek to reduce or eliminate symptoms.