The Truth About 11 Allergy Myths You’ve Probably Always Believed

Are you really allergic to penicillin? Will your pet make you sneeze and wheeze? Is black mold really serious? Doctors clear up our most pervasive misunderstandings about allergies and our health.

The Myth: “Short-haired pets won’t trigger allergies.”

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When patients float the idea of a hypoallergenic pet by Nabeel Farooqui, MD, assistant professor of allergy and immunology at Ohio State University Medical Center, he says “there’s no such thing.” What people with pet allergies are actually allergic to is dander, the skin and body proteins found in the animal’s urine, saliva, and skin. These white flakes are present regardless of the amount of hair a pet has (this is true for all mammals). If Fluffy makes you stuffy, the best thing is to keep him outdoors. If that’s not possible, keep your bedroom—where you spend about one-third of your day—a pet-free zone, don’t allow animals on your furniture, and consider HEPA filters, which can remove dander from the air. Wash your pet at least once a week to help reduce dander levels.

The Myth: “My front yard is giving me allergies.”

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Don’t necessarily blame the vegetation around your home. “A lot of people think that an oak tree in the front yard is causing their seasonal allergies,” says Timothy Craig, DO, professor of medicine and pediatrics at Penn State University. “Some of them end up cutting it down. But tree pollen can travel hundreds of miles in wind currents.” Chances are even if you rid your yard of its vegetation, trees from surrounding areas could still trigger allergies. Consider taking a non-sedating antihistamine, and adjust when you spend time outside. “Do outdoor activities in the morning or evening when the winds aren’t as strong,” says Dr. Craig. “Shower when you come inside so you don’t go to bed with pollen stuck on your body.”

The Myth: “There’s toxic black mold in my bathroom. Ahhh!”

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We admit, we’ve seen some pretty scary headlines on this one. Still, black mold is probably not as toxic as you might think. Black mold, or Stachybotrys, is so sticky that it can’t travel in air, and therefore doesn’t enter the lungs or respiratory tract. Some people may develop allergic reactions to certain molds, but symptoms would be similar to those from pet allergies—itchy eyes or sneezing. “The medical evidence for death-like toxic reactions is very, very sensationalized,” says Dr. Farooqui. If you spot black mold in your home, slip on rubber gloves and use a diluted bleach solution — 1 quarter cup bleach in a gallon of water—as a fungicidal agent to scrub it away.

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The Myth: “I have asthma. I can’t exercise.”

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Sorry, you’re not allergic to working out. “Exercise can actually have a positive effect on asthma and suppress the body's response to allergens,” says Dr. Craig. If you wheeze when you work out, check with a doctor to make sure your medication is adequate. Then, cushion workouts by gradually warming up for at least 10 minutes before and cooling down for several minutes after, and staying well-hydrated. Exercise-induced asthma may be triggered by dryness of the airway. When you begin exercising quickly, you tend to breathe through your mouth, which brings cold, dry air into the lungs (unlike the warm, moist air you get from nose breathing). When this occurs suddenly, it can trigger inflammation of the bronchial airways, causing them to constrict.

The Myth: “I feel weird eating chocolate. Guess I’m allergic.”

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Chances are, you’re probably allergic to something mixed in with the chocolate. “A lot of people say they’re allergic to the cocoa, but studies show that it’s extremely rare,” says Dr. Craig. “Milk could be the culprit, though milk allergy isn’t as common in adults as it is in kids. Or it could be a nut allergy.” The major food allergens are eggs, milk, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish, several of which are frequently used in chocolate bars, puddings, cakes, brownies, and other treats. To find out exactly what’s causing you trouble, see a doctor. “It’s worthwhile to see what the culprit is, so you can avoid only that, and not necessarily all chocolate,” says Dr. Craig.

The Myth: “Bread makes my stomach bloat. I have celiac disease.”

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Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten, a stretchy, sticky wheat protein that can cause reactions like diarrhea and nausea in some people. “Celiac disease is very real, but it’s also a lot less common than people might think,” says Dr. Farooqui. “I’d say 1 to 3 percent of the population actually has celiac disease, but 10 to 30 percent says that they do.” Wheat intolerance, which is what most patients typically have when they suspect celiac, is far more common. It is an inability of the digestive system to break down the highly refined carbohydrates in wheat—not an allergic reaction. Symptoms include bloating, headaches, and joint pain. If you suspect a wheat intolerance, try eating complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and sprouted grains. Finally, a third category is wheat allergy, which is due to an antibody response and can cause life-threatening allergic reactions—like those some people have to peanuts. You will be diagnosed by an allergist, will need to strictly avoid all wheat products, and have an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times in case of a severe reaction.

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The Myth: “An ozone air purifier will cure my allergies.”

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Some manufacturers claim these filters, which produce the gas ozone, can help remove allergens from the air. Although they change the chemical composition of particles in the air, making the air smell cleaner, they don’t filter out the tiny particles that can trigger allergic reactions or asthma. “People think that the after-the-rain smell these purifiers give off is good for you,” says Dr. Craig. “But that’s ozone, which can irritate your nose, eyes, and lungs.” The best bet is to opt for a HEPA filter, which is highly efficient and can trap small particles, sans the ozone.

The Myth: “My down pillow is giving me allergies.”

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Most evidence that blames feathers for allergies is based on anecdotal reports. There haven’t been well-controlled trials on the topic; the research that does exist has found that allergic reactions are due to other allergens accumulating on bedding, like dust mites, mold, or pet contamination. “Feathered down undergoes a heat washing process, which really destroys any sort of intrinsic protein that would cause problems,” says Dr. Farooqui. “Secondly, to keep the integrity of a pillow or comforter, the weave has to be very, very tight on the fabric. That actually acts as a natural barrier to any sort of allergen.” In fact, studies have shown that synthetic bedding tends to harbor more allergens because the casing weaving is looser. If you experience allergies at night, talk to your doctor about getting tested to see which indoor allergens may be the cause.

The Myth: “I’ve always been allergic to penicillin.”

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Even if you experienced a bad medication reaction as a child, people typically outgrow a penicillin allergy. “I would say 80 to 90 percent of people who think they’re allergic to penicillin are probably not,” says David Rosenstreich, MD, director of the division of allergy and immunology at Montefiore Medical Center. Penicillin is a common treatment for a bacterial sore throat, sinus infections, skin infections, or syphilis. Allergic reactions may include skin rashes, asthma attacks, or swelling of the eyes, lips, face, or tongue. “If you need a penicillin-related drug because of your specific infection, ask for a test to see if you’re really allergic or not,” says Dr. Rosenstreich.

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The Myth: “I feel sick, it must be a ragweed allergy.”

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In autumn months, people affected by allergies blame ragweed. “Everybody thinks they’re ragweed allergic, but that’s also the time when molds are really high,” says Dr. Craig. “When corns and other vegetation are starting to dry out, Alternaria [a fungal pathogen], grows on all that decaying vegetation. A lot of people who think they have ragweed allergies are actually allergic to molds.” For any outdoor allergy, the best way to prevent exposure is to limit the time you spend outside to mornings and evenings. You can also consider non-sedating antihistamines, nasal sprays, and eye drops. If you still suffer, see a doctor, who may recommend allergy shots.

The Myth: “No flu shot for me, I’m allergic to eggs.”

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It was once widely believed that people who were allergic to eggs might have a bad reaction to the flu vaccine, which is traditionally harvested in chicken eggs. Recent research, however, has debunked the myth. “It turns out there is such little egg protein in flu vaccines that the recommendations now say it’s perfectly safe to get the flu shot, even if you are allergic to eggs,” says Dr. Rosenstreich. “Some vaccines are now completely egg-free, but even the standard ones are safe.” If you’re still concerned, ask your doctor if the egg-free type can be specifically ordered, or request a skin test for an egg allergy if it first appeared during childhood. People with an allergy to eggs frequently outgrow it.


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