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The Job

About 30 percent of American adults (40% of children) suffer from some kind of allergy. Allergies to certain foods, plants, pollen, animal fur, air pollution, insects, colognes, chemicals, and cleansers may send sufferers to allergy and immunology specialists, doctors who specialize in the treatment of allergic, asthmatic, and immunologic diseases.

Allergists and immunologists also treat patients with hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, which causes symptoms such as congestion, sneezing, and a scratchy throat caused by pollens or molds in the air. They treat asthma, a respiratory disease often triggered by an allergic reaction that causes restricted breathing, constricting the airflow to the lungs. Another serious allergic reaction is anaphylaxis. Triggered by a particular food or insect sting, anaphylaxis can quickly restrict breathing, swell the throat, and cause unconsciousness. Other allergies treated by an allergist include skin allergies, such as hives and eczema, and food and drug allergies.

Immunologic diseases are those that affect the immune system. Allergy and immunology specialists treat patients with conditions such as AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. An immunologist also treats patients who are receiving an organ or bone marrow transplant to help prevent the patient's body from rejecting the transplanted organ.

Allergists/immunologists first examine patients. They review medical histories and backgrounds and may also conduct skin tests and blood tests. Skin tests are often preferred because they are inexpensive and the results are available immediately. Skin tests are also better for identifying more subtle allergies.

Once the diagnosis is made, the doctor determines a treatment plan. In some cases, the solution may be as simple as avoiding the things that cause the allergic reaction. The allergist suggests ways to limit patients' exposure to the allergen. In other cases, a doctor prescribes medication such as antihistamines to relieve allergy symptoms such as nasal congestion, eye burning, and skin rashes.

Antihistamines can have side effects such as dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Should these side effects occur, the allergist may lower a dosage or prescribe a different medication. Sometimes a patient can build up a resistance to an antihistamine, and the doctor needs to prescribe a stronger variety.

Immunotherapy (a series of allergy shots) is another kind of treatment for asthma and for allergies to pollen, dust, bee venom, and a variety of other substances. Immunotherapy involves injecting the patient with a small amount of the substance that causes the allergic reaction. The immune system then becomes less sensitive to the substances and reduces the symptoms of allergy. An allergist will give weekly shots over an extended time, gradually increasing the dosage; eventually the shots are only necessary once a month.

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