Atopy: Definition and Associated Conditions

Medically Reviewed By Marc Meth, MD, FACAAI, FAAAI
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Atopy refers to a person’s genetic predisposition for allergic conditions such as eczema, asthma, or allergic rhinitis. This condition closely correlates with the likelihood of a heightened immune response to inhaled allergens and food allergens. This article defines atopy. It also discusses associated conditions, symptoms, treatments, and causes of the condition.

What is atopy?

Image of a female blowing her nose
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Atopy is a Greek word for tending to produce immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies after minimal exposure to allergens, such as dust mites, pollen, or some types of food. 

Immunoglobulins are molecules the body produces in response to exposure to antigens or toxins and other foreign substances. When the body recognizes the presence of an antigen, it creates these molecules to alert the immune system to respond accordingly.

Research shows that atopy often begins in childhood, typically at higher rates in males versus females. However, females appear to have more symptoms during adolescence and adulthood.

A significant portion of the general population experiences atopy. Research shows this portion to be 10–30% in developed countries.

The most frequent types of atopic disease include:

  • allergic rhinitis
  • asthma
  • atopic dermatitis
  • food allergy

Allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is when your nose becomes irritated due to a substance you are allergic to. This condition usually occurs after breathing in something you are allergic to. Allergens can include:

  • pollen
  • dust mites
  • animal dander
  • mold spores

Symptoms

Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:

  • a runny or blocked nose
  • itchy and watery eyes
  • sneezing or coughing
  • an itchy nose
  • itchiness in the roof of your mouth

Treatments

Treatment may include over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medication. Mild allergic rhinitis may be treatable with a saline nasal wash to help remove mucus inside the nasal passage. 

Medications may include:

  • antihistamines
  • decongestants
  • steroid nasal spray
  • immunotherapy

Learn more about allergies.

Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is a type of chronic skin condition that causes itchy, red, and scaly skin rashes. This condition often begins within the first 6 months of an infant’s life. Although the condition is chronic, many people notice their symptoms begin to taper off near adulthood. However, other people still experience flares of atopic dermatitis well into adulthood.

Symptoms

Symptoms of atopic dermatitis may include:

Treatments

Treatment for atopic dermatitis requires regular skin care for affected areas. Additional treatments include:

  • using moisturizers or topical steroid creams
  • avoiding moisturizers that contain alcohol, dyes, or other chemicals
  • avoiding strong or stringent soaps
  • avoiding wearing irritants such as wool 
  • having short, cool baths instead of hot ones
  • taking medications such as
    • corticosteroids
    • calcineurin inhibitors
    • biologic agents such as dupilumab

Your doctor or dermatologist will be able to help you identify your triggers and find the most effective treatment for you.  

Learn more about atopic dermatitis.

Asthma

Asthma is a condition that affects your lungs. It is the most common chronic condition in children, though adults can also develop asthma.

Symptoms

Symptoms of asthma can range from mild to severe and can include:

Asthma attacks occur when something, such as an allergen, irritates or bothers your lungs. 

Treatments

Treatments for asthma may include:

  • avoiding known triggers
  • taking rescue medications, such as an asthma inhaler that provides quick and short-term relief
  • using daily control medications that reduce airway inflammation and prevent an asthma attack
  • taking biologic agents for severe asthmatics

It is important for people with asthma to work closely with their doctors to create an effective treatment plan.

Food allergy

Food allergies occur when the body has an immune response to specific types of food. Food allergies affect about 8% of children in the United States. Some kids may outgrow an allergy as they reach adulthood. 

However, food allergies are also common among adults. One recent study of over 40,000 adults reports that 10.8% of adults had a food allergy. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of a food allergy can range from mild to severe and can include:

A severe reaction called anaphylaxis can occur in some cases. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.

Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction to a trigger, such as an allergy, and is potentially life threatening. 

Symptoms can come on quickly and include: 

If you or someone around you develops these symptoms, you should: 

  1. Check to see whether they have an epinephrine pen. If they do, read and follow the instructions to dispense the medication.
  2. Dial 911 (or a local emergency number).
  3. Lay them down. If they have vomited, lay them on their side. 
  4. Stay with them until emergency services arrive. 

It is possible for someone to need more than one injection with an epinephrine pen. If symptoms do not begin to clear after 5 minutes, give a second injection if one is available.

Treatments

Treatment for food allergies requires preventing the allergy from occurring in the first place. Work with your doctor to identify all food allergies and avoid them as often as possible. 

There are two types of medications that typically treat food allergies.

  • Antihistamines: These are medications that block the effects of histamine. They are typically available OTC without a prescription.
  • Adrenaline: This is typically via an auto-injector that people carry with them at all times. It treats the severe reactions of anaphylaxis.

Learn more about food allergies.

What causes atopy?

The exact cause of atopy is unknown. However, researchers believe that genetic factors may play a major role.

It is possible that some people have a genetic disposition to develop a condition such as atopy. Some researchers believe this arises from an abnormal regulation by T helper cells and suppressor T lymphocytes that typically aid in the production of IgE plasma cells.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some other questions people asked about atopy, which Marc Meth, M.D., FACAAI, FAAAI, has reviewed.

What is the difference between atopy and allergy?

Atopy refers to the genetic tendency of an individual to develop hypersensitivity disorders involving an exaggerated IgE-mediated immune response to a foreign substance. These disorders include allergic rhinitis, asthma, eczema, and food allergies. On the other hand, an allergy is an overreaction to any foreign substance. 

Is atopy serious?

Atopic symptoms can range from mild to dangerous. Depending on the type of atopy, some mild symptoms might include:

However, rare atopic cases can result in anaphylaxis. This is a whole-body reaction that can cause a narrowing of the airways and can result in loss of consciousness. Anaphylaxis is an emergency and requires immediate treatment.

Summary

Atopy is a genetic tendency to have a hypersensitivity disorder involving an exaggerated IgE-mediated immune response to a foreign substance. This condition is associated with allergies such as eczema, asthma, or allergic rhinitis. Atopy symptoms can range from mild to severe. 

Talk with your doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing allergies. They may recommend consulting an allergist or immunologist for allergy skin testing and help create an effective treatment and prevention plan for your specific condition.

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Medical Reviewer: Marc Meth, MD, FACAAI, FAAAI
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 25
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