The term ‘allergy’ is used to describe a reaction by the body’s immune system to a substance, which for most people, is harmless. An allergic person's immune system believes allergens to be damaging and so produces a special type of antibody (IgE) to attack the invading material. This leads other blood cells to release further chemicals (including histamine) which together cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Allergy aggravates sense of smell, sight, taste and touch, causing irritation, extreme disability and in the worst cases, fatality. Allergy is also a trigger for diseases such as asthma and eczema in a predisposed person. An allergic reaction can cause symptoms such as a runny nose, itchy eyes and palate to skin rashes.
Allergy is widespread in the UK with around 21 million adults suffering from at least one allergy. But the number of sufferers continues to rise. Each year, allergy sufferers are increasing by 5% with half of all those affected being children.
‘Seasonal allergic rhinitis’ or hayfever is considered the most common allergy with one in four of the UK population suffering. Rhinitis is inflammation of the nose, which is recognized by symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, blocked / stuffy nose, itching and 'post-nasal drip' (mucus running down the back of the throat). Grass pollen is the most common allergen, which affects sufferers at the specific times of the year when grass pollen is released (May - July). However some people become allergic to tree or weed and shrub pollens, and will therefore be affected at different times of the year (February to June for trees; September and October for weeds).
We would urge those who are experiencing the symptoms of an allergy to visit their GP and ask for a referral to an allergy consultant in a specialist allergy clinic. The Allergy UK helpline can also offer advice and provide details of the nearest allergy clinic to help in the referral process.
There is no cure as such for allergy, avoidance techniques are the most important aspect of keeping an allergy under control, but it is not always possible to avoid things like pollen or house dust mite. Many practical approaches will help reduce the symptoms and may avoid the need for medication.
Every patient with allergy or intolerance should be able to get an adequate allergy assessment through the NHS, with the right advice to manage their symptoms and triggers. NHS primary care allergy services are currently patchy; sadly the majority of people do not get the help they need.
There remains a huge gap in services, generally, for allergy sufferers, but Allergy UK continues to campaign for better provision of NHS allergy services for adults and children.
Food allergy and food intolerance are often confused. Symptoms of severe food allergic reaction are often immediate and include: tingling of the lips, swelling of the lips/tongue/throat, projectile vomiting, difficulty in breathing, faintness and collapsing. Food intolerance or sensitivity, however, is a collective name for a group of symptoms and illnesses connected to food. Typical symptoms of food intolerance are often delayed and include:bloating, nausea, an urgent need to go to the toilet, migraine/headaches, skin rashes, joint pain, runny nose and IBS.