Allergies are essentially the body overreacting to a foreign substance – usually something quite harmless and otherwise innocuous – by treating it as a harmful toxic or 'invader.' The body's reaction can be very frightening and intense, and can even cause death. This is rarer than many people believe however.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction differ, according to the substance to which the body is sensitive, be it cats or dogs, food, pollen or chemical, and can include sneezing and wheezing, itching and the occurrence of hives and itchy, irritated welts and sores on the limbs. The skin rash is often exacerbated by the sufferers frenzied scratching that can break the skin, leaving injuries. Food intolerances often present with the exceedingly scary symptom of a swelling throat and airwaves, as the skin touched by the food reacts by swelling the tongue and neck and closing the throat. Sinus pain is sometimes seen as is a runny nose. Severe allergic reaction can present with shortness of breath, sudden-onset diarrhoea, vomiting and sickness. The worst cases end with anaphylactic shock setting in. The scary thing about anaphylaxis is that is moves rapidly, and can result in a person being fine one moment, and fighting desperately to breathe the next. Sufferers can carry an emergency treatment that works to rapidly reverse the anaphylaxis. This emergency treatment is often called an 'epi-pen' and is generally a one-shot dose of adrenaline. Anaphylaxis has been reported after insects stings, the consumption of foods like shell-fish and occasionally dairy and after the patient has tried a new medication. Anaphylaxis is fairly rare, but always serious and the patient should always seek medical attention, even if the adrenaline has worked well and they feel fine.
Sensitivities come about, usually with a cumulative effect, when the body mistakes a substance for something harmful. This triggers the production of an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) to 'defend' the body from the substance. The next time the substance is encountered a flood of IgE is released, causing the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction. The causes are not well understood, but there is a hereditary element to the condition, meaning that if some of your family are allergic to substances, there is a good chance that you will be too. Environmental factors play a part, and the children of smokers are thought to have a higher incidence of response to stimulus than non-smokers. Overuse of antibiotics is another purported cause and so is being underweight at birth.
How do I find out if I have an allergy?
There are several tests to diagnose the condition, from skin prick tests to blood tests to look for elevated levels of IgE in the blood. Once diagnosed, as there is no cure, the patient may have to make certain lifestyle changes to deal with their condition, depending on the severity of the reaction they suffer. Some people are near-fatally allergic to foods like peanuts or shellfish. This means that they must remain constantly vigilant about foods, especially when they are not sure how it is prepared. For others, these responses can be a mere nuisance, requiring the taking of an anti-histamine pill periodically or the use of a topical lotion or cream to reduce and relieve symptoms.
The two medications mentioned above are the most common treatments for allergies, but it is also possible to be given small, but ever-increasing doses of the allergen to rebuild the body's immunity to the substance. This must never be undertaken anywhere but a doctor's treatment room; where there is professional help on hand immediately should the patient suffer a severe reaction to the increased dose.
- Sensitivities can range from mild nuisances to fatal attacks
- Intolerances are on the increase all over the developed world
- Millions of Brits suffer from the condition