What is an allergy?
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.
- Grass and tree pollen – this type of allergy is called hay fever or allergic rhinitis
- Food allergies – especially nuts, shellfish, fruit, eggs, and milk
- Dust mites – common insects found in household dust
- Insect bites/stings – this is more prevalent during the summer months
- Animal dander – small flakes of hair or skin
- Medication – common ones include ibuprofen, aspirin, and some antibiotics
- Mould – can release tiny particles that can be breathed in and cause irritation
- Latex – a common substance used to manufacture some gloves and condoms
- Household chemicals – common ones include detergents and hair dyes
What causes allergies?
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.
How can I manage my allergies?
Avoiding allergens is the most effective way of managing an allergy. For example:
- If you are allergic to nuts, you should always check food labels to ensure what you’re eating doesn’t contain nuts or traces of nuts
- Keeping your home dry and well-ventilated will help to limit damp and condensation, reducing the development of mould, which is a common allergen
- Hay fever sufferers should attempt to stay indoors and avoid grassy areas when there is a high pollen count
- If you are allergic to dust mites, fitting wooden floors and using allergy-proof pillows and duvets will help reduce exposure
- Regularly washing and grooming pets or restricting them to certain areas of a well-ventilated house can help reduce exposure to animal dander
- If you are allergic to insect bites and stings, cover exposed skin and use insect repellent, especially during the summer
- For those who suffer from anaphylaxis, ensure you carry two adrenaline auto-injectors, such as EpiPens, everywhere you go. Create an awareness of your condition with your friends and colleagues so they are able to administer your adrenaline during an emergency
Treatments & remedies for common allergies like hay fever
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:
- Levocetirizine (Xyzal)
- Loratadine (Clarityn)
- Fexofenadine (Telfast)
- Chlorphenamine (Piriton)
- Promethazine (Phenergan)
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:
- Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed/Actifed)
- Oxymetazoline (Vicks Soother nasal spray)
These treatments are used to help reduce the inflammation associated with an allergic reaction. Steroid treatments used to help manage allergies include:
- Fluticasone (Flixonase, Dymista, Avamys)
- Beclomethasone (Beconase)
- Mometasone (Nasonex)
- Budesonide (Benacort)
Can allergies be cured through desensitisation?
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.
Can I be tested for allergies?
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:
- Blood test – a sample of blood is taken and examined for the presence of specific antibodies produced by the body in response to an allergen
- Skin prick test – a drop of liquid containing a potential allergen is placed onto your forearm. The skin under the drop is then gently pierced with a tiny needle. If you are allergic to the substance in the drop, a red, itchy bump will appear within 15 minutes
- Patch test – these are used to test for a type of eczema called contact dermatitis. This form of eczema occurs when the skin is exposed to an allergen. The patch test involves adding the suspected allergen to a metal patch, which is then applied to the skin and monitored for a reaction
- Elimination diet – this process of diet testing will help identify food allergies. You may be advised to avoid eating a particular food to assess whether your symptoms improve. After a few weeks of avoidance, you will be asked to eat the food again to test for a reaction
- Challenge testing – this test also helps identify a food allergy. It involves consuming the suspected allergen (under close supervision) in gradually increasing amounts to assess how you react
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.
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.