An allergy is a reaction by the body to a particular food or substance. Allergies are a common problem affecting 1 in every 4 people in the UK at some point in their lives. Having an allergy can be a nuisance, especially when it starts to affect your everyday life. Fortunately, most allergic reactions are mild and manageable. However, for some, severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) can occur.
Allergies are more common in children. Many of these allergies disappear as the child gets older. However, some carry through into adulthood and become lifelong afflictions. It is also possible for an adult to spontaneously develop an allergy to a substance they weren’t previously allergic to.
Allergies are caused when the body's immune system overreacts to an allergen, mistaking it for something harmful. It isn't fully understood why this happens, though most sufferers tend to have a family history of allergies or other closely related conditions, such as eczema or asthma.
The number of allergy sufferers is increasing every year. There is no definitive answer for why this is happening. One theory suggests it is the result of cleaner living. Our environment is becoming increasingly sterile, which is reducing the number of germs our immune system has to recognise and react to.
It is thought this unfamiliarity may cause the immune system to overreact when it comes into contact with a normally harmless substance.
Allergic reactions tend to happen quickly, usually within five minutes of exposure to an allergen. The most common associated symptoms include:
For those who suffer from severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), the symptoms can be potentially life-threatening. These reactions are known as anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis usually comes on suddenly and exacerbates very quickly. The main symptoms include:
Anaphylactic shock is classed as a medical emergency. If not treated quickly the consequences can be very serious. If someone is suffering from anaphylaxis, you should:
Allergies can often be confused with other conditions, such as sensitivities and intolerances. The distinctions between the three are as follows:
If you suspect you have an allergy, talk to your GP about your symptoms. If your allergy has a clear cause, your doctor will likely offer advice and treatment options that will help you manage the condition. If your allergy potentially looks more severe, or if the cause isn’t immediately obvious, you will likely be referred for allergy testing at a specialist clinic or hospital.
Tests that may be carried out include:
We cannot endorse the use of commercially available allergy-testing kits. These tests are often considered unreliable and of a lower standard to those available through accredited private clinics and the NHS.
Avoiding allergens is the most effective way of managing an allergy. For example:
However, it isn’t always possible to avoid allergens. For example, if you suffer from hay fever, it may be unfeasible to close all doors and windows and remain inside for a prolonged period when the pollen count remains high. Or if you have a dog or cat allergy, it isn’t always possible (or desirable) to permanently remove a pet from the house.
There are several medications readily available to help combat the symptoms of an allergic reaction. These include:
A histamine is a chemical produced by the body in response to something harmful. It causes the blood vessels to dilate and the skin to swell. This response is designed to protect the body. Antihistamines work by preventing the substance histamine from affecting the cells in the body. Examples of antihistamines include:
These medicines work by easing the swelling of the blood vessels in the nose, which helps to open the constricted airways. These treatments are designed for short-term use to relieve a blocked nose. Examples of decongestants include:
These treatments are used to help reduce the inflammation associated with an allergic reaction. Steroid treatments used to help manage allergies include:
This treatment may be an option for a small percentage of sufferers whose allergies are persistent, severe and unresponsive to conventional treatments. Allergen immunotherapy involves exposing people to gradually increasing amounts of an allergen, in an attempt to alter their immune system’s response to it.
The procedure can take several years and usually involves administration via injections, drops or tablets. This form of allergy management is usually reserved for environmental allergies, such as insect bites and asthma. Whether the benefits extend food allergies is unclear and therefore not recommended.
Allergies are extremely common and can strike anyone at any age. Suffering from an allergy can be uncomfortable, affecting your enjoyment of everyday life. Fortunately, most allergic reactions are mild and the symptoms can be relieved through an appropriate treatment. To assess what treatment will be safe and effective for you, speak to a healthcare professional. Allergies may be a nuisance, but with the right treatment and a touch of personal vigilance, they can be managed effectively.
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