PINE BLUFF, Ark. – May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Rachel Luckett, Extension specialist-nutrition for the Cooperative Extension Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, says Arkansans can start to cope with the challenges of allergies by better understanding them.

“Allergies constitute some of the most common chronic diseases,” she said. “Allergic reactions occur when a person’s immune system reacts to an allergen – a foreign substance that could be potentially harmful.”

According to the AAFA, an allergen could be something a person eats, inhales, touches or injects into the body. The immune system’s reaction could cause coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose or a scratchy throat. In severe cases, it can cause rashes, hives, low blood pressure, breathing trouble, asthma attacks or even death.

Luckett said more than 50 million Americans experience various types of allergies each year, and allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the nation. Common allergies include food, drug, pollen, insect, pet, mold, latex and skin allergies.

“Milk allergy is the most common food allergy in the U.S.,” Luckett said. “One to 2 percent of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with having this allergy.”

The tree nut allergy is the second most common food allergy to effect American children. Soy allergy is also relatively common, but most children outgrow allergic reactions to soy around the age of 10. Other common food allergies include allergies to wheat, as well as to fish and shellfish.

To identify and treat allergies, Arkansans should always consult with their physician. Doctors diagnose allergies by:

Reviewing the medical background of patients and their family members.

Performing a physical exam.

Performing tests that identify specific allergies.

Each person’s allergy may be treated differently based on their medical history, as well as the severity of the allergic reaction or physical symptoms, Luckett said. Treatment strategies include medication, the purposeful avoidance of allergens or immunotherapy, which trains the immune system to not counteract an allergen.

According to the AAFA, the best way to prevent allergy symptoms and limit the need for allergy medicine is to avoid allergens as much as possible. Families should remove sources of allergens from their home and other places they spend time.

“Allergies can prove disruptive as people go about their daily lives at home, work and school,” Luckett said. “Staying informed about allergens and allergic reactions and visiting the doctor when necessary can help Arkansans deal with this common disease.”