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Step 3: What substances cause allergies?
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Allergens are everywhere -- in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, in the medicine and cosmetics we use, and in plants in our backyard. Here are the most common ones.

Airborne allergens

Airborne allergens are the hardest to avoid, particularly pollen. Inhaling an allergen is the most common way people are exposed. This explains why allergy to pollen (also referred to as "hay fever") affects about 40 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Read detailed information on the most common inhaled allergens:


Any food can cause an allergic reaction in people of all ages. However, the foods that most commonly cause food allergies include peanuts, wheat, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, and soy. Symptoms of food allergy can include skin rashes, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or blood in the stool (rarely in very young infants). Many food allergens can cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. Food allergy is often confused with food intolerance and other conditions, which are not immune system reactions but may have similar gastrointestinal symptoms. Read more about food allergy.

Insect stings

Insect stings usually cause localized pain and swelling in most people. In people allergic to insect stings, however, they can also cause allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. An allergic reaction to insect sting venom sometimes happens with stunning swiftness because the allergen is injected directly into the bloodstream. Read more about insect sting allergic reaction.


Allergies to medicines may produce symptoms throughout the body. The reactions might be severe, including anaphylaxis. Often, though, these allergies produce symptoms that are quite mild. When medications are injected, the allergic reactions are more likely to appear quickly. Read more about drug allergies.


Latex can cause an allergic reaction. This has become a growing problem, particularly in the healthcare community, due to the increased use of latex to protect against contagious diseases. For people allergic to latex, repeated exposure can lead to anaphylaxis. Read more about latex allergy.

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac are found throughout the United States. These plants have an oil on their surface called urushiol. Very small amounts of this oil can cause allergic contact dermatitis, an itchy and blistery rash. This is a classic example of an allergy that does not need IgE antibodies to cause a reaction. Read more about poison plants.


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Review Date: 6/29/2011
Reviewed By: Paula J. Busse, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Clinical Immunology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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