Causes and Risk Factors of Allergies

Allergic reaction to bee sting
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Allergies are, essentially, caused by a misguided immune system. In your body's efforts to protect your from harm, it misreads an allergen—a harmless substance, such as pollen or pet dander—as something worth fighting. The body overreacts to it and produces antibodies to combat it. The allergic reaction to you experience, whether it be a sneeze, a rash, what have you, is the result of that process.

In addition to the above, allergens can be a variety of different substances including mold, food, medications, insect stings, and metals.

Common Causes

On your first exposure to an allergen, you don't have a reaction. It's after further exposures that your immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies kick into action, causing what is defined as an allergy. The allergen may be inhaled, consumed, or come in contact with the skin.

During an allergic process, the substance responsible for causing the allergy (allergen) binds to antibodies present on white blood cells in your body, including mast cells and basophils. The cells then release chemicals such as histamine and leukotrienes, resulting in allergic symptoms.

Reactions include skin rash, hives, sneezing, runny nose, nausea, diarrhea, or more serious symptoms such as tongue, lip or throat swelling or having an asthma attack. The most serious form of allergic reactions is anaphylaxis, which involves a whole-body allergic reaction, which can be life-threatening.

The types of symptoms that occur depend on where in the body this reaction takes place. For example, if pollen is inhaled, then nasal allergies may occur. With a food allergen, swallowing the food may result in a whole-body reaction, such as hives or anaphylaxis.

Airborne Allergens

As many as one-third of adults and 40% of children have allergic rhinitis due to airborne allergens. The most common ones are:

  • Weeds
  • Mold
  • Dust mites
  • Grass
  • Pollen
  • Pet dander


Millions of children and adults in the United States have food allergies. When the problematic food is eaten, most allergic reactions occur within minutes. They can produce skin, nasal, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular symptoms, as well as anaphylaxis.

Almost 90% of all food allergies are related to these eight foods:

  • Milk (primarily in infants and small children)
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Fish
  • Shellfish


Hives and swelling suggest an allergic cause of medication reactions. The most common medication allergies are to penicillin and cephalosporin antibiotics. Less common allergies are seen to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Other medications may produce non-allergic reactions as well.

Insect Stings and Bites

Sometimes people can experience more severe allergic reactions to insect stings and bites. The most common insect-related allergic reactions stem from:

Contact Allergens

There are many irritating chemicals that can cause a skin reaction, but some set off a true allergic reaction when you come in contact with them. The most common ones are:

  • Poison ivy, oak, and sumac
  • Nickel
  • Makeup and personal care products
  • Latex
  • Fragrances
  • Antibacterial ointments
  • Formaldehyde
  • Hair dye
  • Leather tanning chemicals


Allergies tend to run in families. You are more at risk if your family history includes people with allergies. This is called being atopic. Your body is more likely than most to see a new allergen as a threat and produce IgE antibodies.

Research is actively underway to identify which genes are responsible for making people more susceptible to allergic diseases. But your genes alone might not determine whether you get allergies, as your environment and when you are exposed to allergens may play a big role.

If you are having allergy symptoms, it can be helpful to give a good family history to your doctor, if possible. Include details of family members who had asthma, hay fever, seasonal allergies, hives, eczema, or severe reactions to insect bites or bee stings.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

There are theories that early exposure to allergens in infancy (such as having a dog in the house) and respiratory infections can help prevent developing allergies. On the other hand, the thinking is that it is good to reduce exposure to dust mites by using allergen-impermeable covers on children's bedding and taking other measures to keep their bedrooms free of dust.

Mothers who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to increase the child's risk of allergies. Secondhand smoke also raises the allergy risk for children and infants.

Breastfeeding is recommended for infants for numerous reasons, including reducing the risks of allergies and preventing cow's milk allergies. A mother does not need to avoid any particular foods while breastfeeding.

If you have allergies, avoiding the allergens that trigger them is the key step to preventing allergic reactions. This may mean avoiding outdoor exposure during high pollen seasons, checking carefully for ingredients that can trigger food allergies, and not wearing jewelry that can set off nickel allergies.

A Word From Verywell

The list of what can trigger an allergy is very long. If you are prone to allergies or have a family history of susceptibility, discuss any allergy symptoms you have with your doctor. If you have children or plan to have children, talk to your doctor about the current thinking on allergen exposure and what to look for if you think your child has allergies. Early treatment, especially for children, may reduce the impact allergies will have on their lives.

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Article Sources

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