With Allergy Awareness Week in April, we thought it was time to shed some light on the common questions surrounding allergies.
Allergies are a widespread issue, affecting around a third of people worldwide at some stage in their lives. Incidence of allergy - including asthma and food allergies - are increasing, particularly among children.
It’s Allergy Awareness Week from 25 April to 1 May, so now is the ideal time to find out more about allergies, what causes them and what you can do to manage your allergy.
What is an allergy?
An allergic reaction occurs when your immune system responds to a usually harmless substance1. Many people are allergic to pollens and house dust mite, and there are various common food allergies to things like peanuts and eggs. However, almost anything can be an allergen.
When you come into contact with an allergen your immune system triggers an antibody response and releases a substance called histamine. Histamine is what causes the irritating, uncomfortable symptoms associated with allergies, including sneezing, swelling and itchy eyes2.
Are allergies becoming more common?
The number of people with an allergy has risen sharply over the last 20 years3 and there are many factors that could explain why. There is a widely-held belief that people are more likely to suffer from allergies if they have been exposed to fewer germs in childhood. This is known as ‘the hygiene hypothesis’ and it has mislead people to think that modern hygiene standards are bad for our health.
Some of the main causes of allergy are:
Genetics – a child born into a family with allergies has a higher chance of developing an allergy themselves. Current research shows that the allergy genes may be ‘switched on’ or ‘switched off’ by environmental factors, such as viral infections4.
- Antibiotics – taking antibiotics may reduce the number of bacteria on your skin and in your gut, making it more difficult for your immune system to distinguish harmful bacteria from harmless ones. Antibiotic use has increased recently, and this could account for some of the increased incidence of allergies5.
- Childhood diet – there is some evidence that the foods you are exposed to as a child can determine whether you have an allergy when you are older. Early introduction to common allergenic foods can prevent you from developing an allergy to that food. For example, eating peanuts in the first 11 months of your life can cut the risk of peanut allergy by up to 80%6. As parents are more fearful of allergies they exclude common allergens from their child’s diet and as a result the child has a higher risk of becoming allergic.
Doctors can diagnose allergies by doing tests which measure the presence of allergen-specific IgE antibodies. The two most common tests are the skin prick test and the specific IgE blood test, which was previously called the RAST test. However, detecting the antibodies only indicates that you have been exposed to an allergen, and many people will test positive for IgE antibodies even if they have not experienced a reaction .
A reliable allergy diagnosis depends on both tests and on an allergy focused history. If the allergy history and the allergy tests give a conflicted result a provocation test may be necessary. This is carried out in hospital, and you are exposed to the suspected allergen under closely monitored conditions to see if you have an allergic reaction.
Depending on the severity of your allergy, you may be able to manage it by avoiding the allergen or you may need some form of medication or treatment. Most allergic reactions are mild and you can reduce the impact of your allergy on your life by reducing your exposure. The medications you may be offered include antihistamines, steroids and emollient creams. These all work by easing the symptoms rather than curing the condition, and they can make a huge difference to your health and wellbeing. Allergy immunotherapy works to treat the condition and involves purposefully giving small but increasing doses of the allergen to build up your tolerance.
A small number of people experience a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis which is usually triggered by exposure to insect stings, drugs or certain foods. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition which requires immediate emergency treatment using adrenaline. The adrenaline decreases the swelling caused by the anaphylaxis and stimulates the heart. The sooner the adrenaline is given the better the health outcome for the patient, which is why people who are at risk of this condition carry auto injector devices such as Epipen, Jext or Anapen.
Allergy Awareness Week
Allergy UK runs awareness weeks to get people talking about allergies. You can find out more about the Allergy Awareness Week on the Allergy UK website. Find out more about allergy testing, allergy medication and allergy immunotherapy at BMI Healthcare.
To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337 or make an online enquiry.