Atopy and Atopic Disease

Atopic is a term used to describe an IgE-mediated response within the body following exposure to external irritants.

woman with hay fever
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The Difference Between Atopy and Allergy

Most of us are acquainted with the term "allergy." We understand that it is an exaggerated body reaction to an external irritant. Allergies cover a broad range of reactions. Atopy, on the other hand, refers to a genetic predisposition to diseases in which IgE antibodies are produced in response to even limited exposure to environmental triggers that don't typically bother other people. Thus, all atopic reactions are allergies, but not all allergies involve atopic responses.

Often the two words are used interchangeably, although in clinical practice doctors are much more likely to use the word allergy. 

Atopic Diseases

The following list contains the most common types of atopic disease:

What Causes an Atopic Reaction?

When a person who has an atopic disease is exposed to an allergen, an IgE response occurs that causes immune and blood cells to release substances, such as histamines, that trigger a variety of physical changes within the body. These changes can affect blood vessels, stimulate secretion of mucus, affect muscle functioning and create inflammation within cells of certain parts of the body.

With atopy, genetic factors are typically involved, although environmental factors appear to play a role in both onset and maintenance of symptoms.

Common Triggers

As you will see, many of the triggers for atopy are air-borne:

Symptoms may also be triggered by contact with certain chemicals, certain types of fabrics, and other environmental irritants.


As you will see, many of the symptoms of atopy are those that you would associate with an allergic reaction:

  • Hives, welts, scaling or other signs of skin irritation
  • Itching of the eyes, nose or skin
  • Nasal congestion
  • Redness of the eyes
  • A runny nose
  • Sinus pain and/or swelling
  • Sneezing

The following symptoms indicate anaphylaxis which can be life-threatening and thus require immediate medical attention:

  • Wheezing, shortness of breath or any difficulty breathing
  • Rapid or slowed heartbeat
  • Any signs of mental confusion or loss of consciousness
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Atopy Definition.

  2. UpToDate. The relationship between IgE and allergic disease.

  3. Moreno MA. JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page. Atopic Diseases in Children. JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(1):96. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3886

  4. Caubet JC, Eigenmann PA. Allergic triggers in atopic dermatitis. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2010;30(3):289-307. doi:10.1016/j.iac.2010.06.002

  5. Merck Manuals. Anaphylactic Reactions. July 2019.

Additional Reading