Spotting allergies: common treatments and myths

In any year, one in five people in the UK get treatment for an allergy - and GPs see 193 million patients every year about allergic problems. Allergic conditions include asthma, hay fever, some kinds of eczema and food allergies.

Allergies happen because our immune system, whose job is to fight off our body's enemies, over-reacts to something it's exposed to. The most dangerous kind of allergy - life-threatening anaphylaxis - is definitely on the rise. In the last 20 years, the number of people admitted to hospital with it has increased by about two thirds. Fortunately it's still uncommon - about one in every three to 10,000 Britons are affected each year - but it's still responsible for about 20 deaths a year in the UK, mostly among children and young adults.

Some people get anaphylaxis with no obvious cause. However, the known culprits include nuts (especially peanuts), shellfish, eggs, kiwi fruit, bee or wasp stings and medicines like antibiotics or aspirin. Symptoms come on rapidly and are very dramatic. They include tongue and lip swelling, wheezing, dizziness, itching, flushing, palpitations, tummy pain, breathing problems, 'nettle' rash, confusion and sometimes collapse.

If you've ever had an anaphylactic reaction, it's essential to get tested for possible causes, so you can avoid it completely. You'll also need to carry treatment with you everywhere. This includes an injection pen device which gives a rapid dose of adrenaline - friends and family should know how to use it too. Wearing a medical alert bracelet is a good idea - rapid treatment can save lives.

It is possible to grow out of some allergies, even if they're very serious - egg allergy in very young children is one example. There have been some promising studies looking at whether very carefully monitored treatment can stop young people with peanut allergy from reacting or even prevent high-risk children from developing peanut allergy in the first place. The future for allergies may be different. But until then, once you've had an anaphylactic reaction to something, you'll need to avoid even the tiniest exposure to it for life.

Fortunately, most allergies are less severe than anaphylaxis. Hay fever, caused by pollen allergy, is miserable but not life-threatening - although bad symptoms can bring on an asthma attack. Symptoms include itchy nose, eyes and throat, sneezing and runny or blocked nose. Treatments range from antihistamine tablets to eye drops and steroid nasal sprays. Simple measures often help - staying inside when pollen counts are high; wearing wrap-around sunglasses; showering and washing your hair when you come inside; and using a natural pollen barrier such as Vaseline® or HayMax® under your nostrils, to reduce pollen getting up your nose. Antihistamine tablets can help for all sorts of allergies, including food allergies that cause itchy rashes

Contact dermatitis is a skin allergy to something you touch. Common culprits include cosmetics (including hair dyes), metal (especially nickel or cobalt in jewellery), latex, plants (like daffodils, chrysanthemums, tulips and sunflowers), and preservatives in creams or ointments. Skin gets red, sore and inflamed - sometimes days after you've touched what you're allergic to. Your doctor can prescribe unscented moisturisers and steroid cream to settle the symptoms. If it's not clear what the cause is, he may refer you for 'patch testing', where tiny amounts of different products are put on your skin for two days. If a cause is found, you'll need to avoid the tiniest trace of it to avoid the same problem in future. Beware private 'specialists' who offer hair analysis, kinesiology or 'Vega testing' for allergies - they don't work!

Food allergies ( especially to nuts, cow's milk and eggs) are more common in children. Lots of adults believe they have food allergies - but actually, only one in five people who're tested turns out to have an allergy. Most of the rest have food intolerance rather than allergy. This is important, because food intolerances are never life-threatening. Food intolerance usually causes symptoms in your gut - tummy pain, bloating, wind, feeling sick or diarrhoea. You may be fine if you have a small amount (unlike with some food allergies, where the tiniest trace can bring on a reaction).

I have quite a lot of patients who make drastic changes to their diet because they believe they have food allergies. This can be bad for your health - an unbalanced diet can leave you short of vital vitamins and other nutrients. Before making major changes, see your GP, who may be able to refer you to a dietician.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.