What Is An Allergy?

What It Means To Have An Allergy

This is not as easy to answer as you may think because there is no specific definition. A conventional allergist will understand one thing by 'allergy', while a holistic doctor (like a herbalist or naturopath) may have a broader definition. Furthermore, the term allergy is often confused with 'intolerance' and 'sensitivity'. Most people for example who think they have a food allergy, in reality only have an intolerance or sensitivity.

1. Early Definition Of Allergy

The word allergy was first coined in 1906 to describe any change in the way the body responds to the environment. This was later more specifically defined as "any adverse reaction to substances that are normally harmless". Conventional doctors would in fact term this a sensitivity rather than allergy. For example a sensitivity could cause a rash, headache or breathing difficulty in response to perfume, cigarette smoke, pesticides, household cleaning products, glossy magazine paper, newspaper print, exhaust fumes or petrol. A food intolerance is the same - like, lactose intolerance (also known as dairy intolerance). An intolerance is not an allergy. A food allergy does more than produce mild symptoms like headaches, cramps or bloating, it is often more serious and potentially fatal (like a peanut allergy).

2. Current Definition Of Allergy

When mainstream medicine came on board in the 1920s, conventional doctors narrowed the 1906 definition further to mean "reactions to harmless items where the immune system is definitely involved". Today, allergists consider this the most accurate way to describe an allergy (although you may also occasionally hear them call it an immune sensitivity).

3. Even More Specific Definition Of Allergy

In the 1960s conventional doctors narrowed the term even further after the discovery of an antibody known as IgE (sometimes just called the allergy antibody). So a new tighter meaning of allergy was "harmless items where IgE is involved". Most conventional doctors, when they refer to allergies will give the second definition above. However when they talk of a 'tendency to allergy' or an 'allergy treatment' or the 'allergy epidemic' they are using this third definition and mean IgE- mediated allergies. Hay fever, asthma's, atopic eczema and anaphylaxis (violent reaction to food, insect stings, latex in condoms and penicillin) fall into this third category.

Tip: If you need a general word to describe a reaction you have having to something, use the word 'sensitive'. Saying you are 'sensitive' to something is more appropriate than saying you have an 'allergy' - unless you have been specifically diagnosed with an allergy by a doctor.

• Need more information about allergies? See:

Are allergies becoming more common?
Discover if more people suffering from allergies.
Do allergies run in families?
Discover if your DNA plays a role.
Which foods cause allergies?
Discover the main culprits.
Can allergies kill you?
Discover how even a kiss could be dangerous.
What is hay fever?
Read about this condition and statistics.
What are the signs of hay fever?
Discover the common and less common symptoms.
Can you grow out of allergies?
Kids with asthma and hay fever.

• Got another question? See: Allergy Questions

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