Not everyone is allergic to pet dander, but among those who are, symptoms range from mild to severe. Avoiding animals is often the most effective way to prevent an allergic reaction. When animals are unavoidable, however, treatments are available. Pet dander allergy symptoms are similar to those of other airborne allergies, such as hay fever.
Mild pet dander reactions include sneezing; itchy, watery or red eyes; tickling in the back of the throat or roof of the mouth; or an itchy nose. More significant reactions consist of runny nose, nasal congestion, thick mucus drainage down the back of the throat, cough, sinus pressure and pain, frequent waking, and blue coloration beneath the eyes. It is not unusual for symptoms to begin as mild, then become more severe, the longer a person is exposed to pet dander.
In addition to these respiratory symptoms, an allergic reaction of the skin, called allergic dermatitis, can occur. Sometimes the rash will be made of hives, or raised, red patches of skin. The skin will likely itch.
Pet dander isn't really a harmful agent to the human body. An allergic reaction, however, represents the body's immune system reacting to the dander as if it is a harmful, potentially infectious agent. The immune system sends messages to different parts of the body, which produce histamine to fight off the dander. Histamine causes all of the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Dander is found in animal skin cells, saliva or urine. Both cats and dogs can shed hair and skin cells wherever they go. Allergic reactions can be caused by these animals, and less commonly by other animals such as horses. The American Lung Association points out that about twice as many people report allergies to cats than dogs. Licking is a common practice in animals when they are cleaning themselves. The saliva from the tongue can leave dander on the fur that is shed. Many pets lick as a sign of affection, which can also provoke an allergic response, especially allergic dermatitis.
Vacuuming often can reduce pet dander, but it isn't likely to completely rid the home of the allergen. It can take several weeks for the allergens to die down in the home. Most allergic individuals must choose to live without pets or take an antihistamine daily. Antihistamines work by blocking the production of histamine triggered by dander. Without histamine, the body does not produce the annoying symptoms associated with the allergic reaction. Individuals with only a topical allergy can wash the saliva off immediately and apply an antihistamine cream. Other common treatments include corticosteroids to fight inflammation, decongestants to relieve sinus congestion, and nasal irrigation with saline solution.
Individuals with both asthma and pet dander allergies are at an increased risk of asthma attack when exposed to pet dander. Dander exposure can cause difficulty breathing, chest tightness, pain in the chest, wheezing or other noises with exhalation, and waking due to shortness of breath or coughing.