Allergies and summer seem to go hand in hand these days. As a nation we’re increasingly allergic to a number of triggers, and at any time. Allergies affect around one in four people in the UK at some time in their lives.
Sheila Patel explains what allergy actually is, and looks at the treatments available.
What are allergies?
Allergies are caused by the body's immune system reacting to specific substances as if they were harmful, and producing an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). This is an over-reaction, as normal household dust, pollen, pet hairs etc are not actually harmful. This antibody causes other blood cells to release more chemicals (including histamine), which together cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction. These include a runny, itchy nose due to excess fluid and mucus production, and laboured breathing due to the narrowing of the air tubes in the lungs.
In rare cases, allergic reactions can be very serious. This is called anaphylactic shock and is sudden and severe. The symptoms affect the respiratory and circulatory system, and include raised blood pressure, swelling, and breathing difficulties. Emergency treatment is needed, usually with an injection of a drug called adrenaline.
What provokes them?
Allergies can be inherited or caused by environmental factors. The amount of contact you have with certain substances in your earliest years is particularly important. Constant exposure to cigarette smoke, house dust mites, pollens, pets and certain foods makes you more likely to become allergic to them. Air pollution, processed foods and frequent antibiotic use all seem to make us more likely to develop allergies as well.
What to do?
If you think you have an allergy, see your GP and report the symptoms you are having, when and how often they occur, or if there is a family history of allergy. You should also think about any triggers that seem to cause a reaction, and whether it happens at a particular place or time. Your GP can offer several tests to find out the exact trigger should it be necessary. Wherever possible, the most effective way of treating allergies is to avoid all contact with the substance causing the reaction.
There are many drugs available to treat the common symptoms such as runny nose, itchy mouth and sneezing. Many are available over the counter; ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.
• Antihistamines treat allergies by blocking the action of the chemical, histamine, which the body releases when it thinks it is under attack from an allergen. Antihistamines can be taken in tablet, cream and liquid form, and also in eye drops and nasal drops.
• Decongestants help to relieve symptoms such as a blocked nose, which is often caused by hay fever, and dust and pet allergies. Decongestants can be taken as tablets, capsules, nasal sprays or in liquid form.
• Nasal sprays reduce swelling and irritation in the nose; eye drops relieve sore, itchy eyes. Some sprays and drops are only suitable for adults; ask your GP or pharmacist for advice before buying treatments for children.
• Drugs such as sodium cromoglicate and corticosteroids can be used regularly to stop symptoms developing. These are commonly available as nasal sprays and eye drops.
Alternative medicine can also help provide treatment for allergies.
• Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) works on the assumption that the unconscious mind has a blueprint of the body in perfect health and the full capability of keeping the body healthy. Neuro-Linguistic Programming describes the dynamics between mind (neuro) and language (linguistic) and how their interplay effects our body and behaviour (programming). NLP Practitioners use a number of NLP techniques to address the body’s allergic reactions, and allow the brain to understand that this is an over-reaction and under its control, and so learn to stop the allergic reaction to triggers that cannot hurt or harm the body.
• Homeopathy is based on the so-called law of similars (‘like cures like’) – the belief that any substance that produces symptoms similar to the symptoms under treatment would cure that same disease if taken in minute doses. Treatments are usually individualised for the patient and not the disease. The British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology (BSACI) recently issued a statement saying that there is inadequate evidence for any benefit from homeopathy in treating allergic disorders. A well-designed study published in The Lancet, however, did show significant improvement in hayfever symptoms, as did a review of clinical trials in homeopathy published in the BMJ.
• Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment that involves inserting tiny needles into specific meridians or areas of the body. It has been found to be particularly useful for pain relief, and has grown in popularity. Claims that it is useful in treating allergies in general are not based on well-performed clinical trials, although the BSACI concedes that some studies have shown a small, temporary improvement in wheezing when acupuncture was employed.