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The Ultimate Guide To Allergies

Introduction To Allergies

 

What is an allergy?

An Allergy is a damaging and misguided autoimmune response from the body to a substance – often a food – to which it has become hypersensitive. It is a reaction against perceived threatening foreign invaders.

Substances that trigger an allergic reaction are called ‘Allergens’. pollen, dust mites, mould and pet dander are all examples of allergens. Certain foods can be allergens as well.

How Common are Allergies?

Thought to affect more than 25% of people in the UK at some point throughout their lives, allergies are very common. In fact, there has been a noticeable rise in allergy diagnosis in recent years.

Allergies are particularly common among children. Although some allergies go away as the child grows older, and their immune system develops, most allergies are lifelong. Adults can also develop allergies to substances that they were not previously allergic to.

While having an allergy can be a nuisance, most allergic reactions are mild and can be kept under control. Severe reactions do occasionally occur, but these are uncommon.

How Testing can help

If you’re still not sure or want to get your suspicions confirmed, you could consider professional and accurate allergy testing. This can help you detect any other sensitivity or intolerance issues that you may not be aware of. By putting a little time into allergy testing, you’ll be able to take back control of your life, even if you didn’t think that was possible.

Allergy testing could be the helping hand you need.

In most cases, allergies are hereditary, and you’ll have them for life. An intolerance, on the other hand, can come and go depending on your diet and lifestyle. You can work on your intolerances to reduce them or even eliminate them, over time.

How Allergies are Detected

Allergies are found by measuring the Immunoglobulin E (IgE) count in the blood, as these are specific antibodies that the body creates to combat the perceived threat. IgE allergies are immediate responses by the immune system, to a foreign substance that has entered the body. You may come into contact with these foreign substances through consumption or inhalation.

If you have an allergy, your body will begin to react the moment you come into contact with the allergen. Common allergic reaction symptoms include; localised swelling (i.e. of the throat or tongue), hives, or difficulty breathing. In severe cases, IgE reactions can cause anaphylactic shock.

Peanut, shellfish, egg and soya are among the most common allergens.

Intolerance symptoms aren’t as immediate as with allergies. Symptoms of intolerances come on gradually; anything from 30 minutes up to a 48 hours later. These symptoms might include headaches, bloating, eczema, excessive gas, diarrhoea, and fatigue.

What are the symptoms?

  • Sneezing
  • A runny or blocked nose
  • Worsening of asthma or eczema symptoms
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Red, itchy or watery eyes
  • Wheezing and coughing
  • A red, itchy rash
  • Swelling of the tongue, lips or throat

The symptoms of a food allergy aren’t the same for everyone and can differ depending on the severity of the allergy. It should also be noted that the severity of a single reaction doesn’t promise that future reactions won’t be more or less severe.

Severe Allergic Reaction (Anaphylaxis)

In rare cases, a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis (or anaphylactic shock) can take place. This can be life-threatening. Anaphylaxis affects the entire body and usually develops within minutes of exposure to the allergen.

Signs of anaphylaxis include any of the previously mentioned symptoms, as well as:

  • Swelling of the throat, tongue and mouth
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Light-headedness
  • Confusion
  • Lips or skin turning blue
  • Collapsing and losing consciousness

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.

Differences between Allergies and Intolerances

Here are the main differences between a food allergy and a food intolerance. This list isn’t extensive, but these are the main points to consider when differentiating the two;

Allergy: Allergic reactions are more extreme. Not only can they be brought on by a tiny amount of the allergen, but the reaction itself will also be more intense. For example, you may experience your heart rate increase, your mouth feeling numb or swelling. The reaction can be severe, with just a tiny bite of the food in question. Allergic reactions can also be life-threatening in severe cases.

Common food allergens include peanuts, eggs, sulphates and shrimp. Reactions don’t need to be life-threatening for them to have been caused by an allergy. Even a simple rash in response to a bite of the suspected food is enough to indicate you’re dealing with an allergy.

Intolerance: With food intolerances, the reaction is usually tied to how much of the food you ingest. For example, having a bite of bread, if you’re intolerant to wheat, is not going to upset your stomach too much, if at all. But If you eat an entire bloomer, you’ll have a more significant reaction to it. The reactions symptoms are often things like; discomfort in your stomach increased acid or bathroom-related issues.

Both food intolerances and allergies are important to understand. Just because an intolerance isn’t life-threatening, doesn’t make it unimportant. You just need to understand what foods are making you react, so that you can limit consumption of them and help keep your body in tip-top shape.

Conditions Effected by Allergies

 

Eczema

You may be surprised to hear that there’s a known connection between eczema and allergies. Experts have been looking into this for some time and are still researching to what extent the two are connected. But one thing is certain; the two definitely impact one another. 

Evidence suggests that those who suffer from the skin condition are more likely to develop food allergies than those without. Those are diagnosed with food allergies are also more likely to have eczema already. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, it’s clear that there is some link causing the two conditions to be often present in unison.

Allergy Testing’s Role

As allergies and eczema can often accompany one another, it makes sense that an allergy test could help sufferers alleviate their symptoms. Allergy testing looks for IgE antibodies in response to an allergen – If you have an allergic reaction, IgEs’ will be present. 

Identifying and avoiding a food allergy has helped to clear up many cases of eczema. Most people imagine an allergic reaction to cause more extreme symptoms such as anaphylaxis or swelling rather than skin a condition. But there is a wide range of symptoms that can arise from an allergic reaction. This includes eczema.

If you’re experiencing a bout of eczema, you should first determine if topical problems could be causing it. Have you started using a new hygiene product or laundry detergent? Has something in the local environment changed? It doesn’t make sense to get an allergy test until you’ve filtered out other possibilities.

Research has indicated that food allergy testing could even lead to curing eczema. In fact, if used early in the diagnostic process, it could save lots of time and effort. Only time will tell whether or not allergy testing can help cure eczema for sure though. Still, it’s exciting to imagine a cure exists.

Asthma

An allergic reaction occurs when proteins in the immune system (antibodies) mistakenly identify a substance, e.g. tree pollen, as an invader. In an attempt to protect you from the substance, antibodies bind to the allergen.

The chemicals released by your immune system are what cause allergy symptoms, such as nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes or skin reactions. For some, this reaction also affects the lungs and airways. In other words, the allergy is what causes asthmatic symptoms.
You can learn more about the connection between asthma and allergies in this blog post

Seasonal Allergies

The most common spring and summer allergies are variations of hay fever. Hay fever (aka rhinitis) is caused by trees and grasses releasing pollen into the air. If you’re allergic to the pollen and breathe it in, it triggers the infamous watery eyes and runny noses associated.

Different plants pollinate at different times of the year. So if your hay fever is caused by tree pollen, then it’s likely to only last throughout the summer, while grass pollen allergies are usually experienced throughout the spring months.

Winter Allergies

The winter months can often leave us feeling under the weather for various reasons. But for some, it’s more to do with a seasonal allergy afflicting them than a winter-induced cold. We’re all used to seeing people with allergy-induced watery eyes or sneezes around springtime, but most of us associate it with a bug in the winter, rather than allergies.

Winter allergies aren’t necessarily due to there being winter-exclusive allergens around. They’re more likely to be caused by the increase in exposure to allergens, in higher quantities. Because we spend more time indoors during the winter, along with the fact that we want to keep the heat in and keep our windows closed, dust and animal dander tends builds up. This increase in density, and subsequently increase in exposure is what triggers winter allergies. 

Symptoms of winter allergies

Winter allergies tend to cause similar symptoms to any other allergy. But the most common manifestations include itchy eyes and a fever. If you’re trying to determine whether you’re suffering an allergy or a regular cold, remember that allergy symptoms will come on very quickly, while the signs of the common cold tend to build up over a few hours or days.
We go more in-depth into telling apart winter allergies and the common cold in another article – Do I Have Seasonal Allergies or a Cold?

Lactose Intolerance

Many people are surprised when we tell them that Lactose intolerance is neither an allergy or strictly an intolerance (in the sense of a food intolerance).

Lactose intolerance is a common digestive condition where your body lacks the ability to digest lactose. Lactose is a type of sugar mainly found in milk and other dairy products and is digested by lactase in our bodies. If we don’t produce enough lactase, then our stomachs struggle to break down the lactose and then the symptoms of lactose intolerance can arise. 

Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance include:

  • Abdominal bloating, pain, or cramps.
  • Rumbling or gurgling sounds in the stomach
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Flatulence, or gas.
  • Nausea, which can be accompanied by vomiting.

Lactose intolerance symptoms can be quite similar to other conditions such as IBS or Milk Protein Intolerance (which is another entirely separate issue). If you experience more severe symptoms that come on quickly or don’t seem proportional to the amount of lactose you’ve consumed, it’s more likely to be an allergy or other condition. 
You can read more about lactose intolerance here.

Allergy Testing Methods

 

Blood Sample Test

If an individual is exposed to an allergen, the body will produce immunoglobin E (IgE antibodies), and then release histamine and symptoms. It is known as an IgE-mediated immune response, and symptoms usually occur almost straight away. 

The blood sample test for allergies will look for a reaction when exposed to a suspected allergen. If IgE antibodies are produced, it’s indicative of an allergy.      

Skin Prick Test

In clinical settings, a food allergy is usually diagnosed using the skin prick test. Also known as a scratch or puncture test, this is the test that most clinicians will opt for. The skin is punctured with a lancet to prick extracts of various allergens into the skin. If a reaction takes place, you are then diagnosed with an allergy. 

There is a risk of experiencing a severe reaction with this kind of testing, which is why some people opt for blood testing instead. Although it should be perfectly safe if conducted under medical supervision.

Patch Test

Patch testing is generally done to determine if certain substances will cause skin irritation. They’re only effective at finding allergens that may cause skin-related symptoms though, so you don’t get the full picture, as allergens can produce a variety of symptoms.

Skin Injection Test

This test is usually recommended for testing an allergy to insect venom or penicillin. The suspected allergy would be injected just under the skin, with the site inspected about 15 minutes later. Again, this test isn’t ideal as an all-around allergy test.

Can an Allergy Test make you Feel Ill?

Yes, and no. There can be a risk of side-effects depending on which allergy test you choose to have. The general rule of thumb is that if you have an allergy test which exposes you to suspected allergens, any reactions you have can result in general allergic symptoms. However, you shouldn’t experience any harmful effects from IgE blood testing, other than those associated with standard blood tests (though IgE testing required much less blood).

Which Allergies can I be Tested for?

A wide variety of food and non-food items can be tested for allergies. As an individual can be allergic to practically anything, it would be impractical for us to list them all. However, a few of the most common allergies include:

  1. Pollen
  2. Penicillin
  3. Bee Venom
  4. Latex
  5. Eggs
  6. Shrimp
  7. Fish
  8. Celery
  9. Wheat
  10. Soy
  11. Sesame Seeds
  12. Peanuts
  13. Pistachios
  14. Milk
  15. Gluten
  16. Tree Nuts (Almonds, Hazelnuts, Walnuts, Cashews etc.)

Can Medication Effect My Test Results?

The last thing you want is to go through the trouble of an allergy test only to find out that your results are void because of the medication you take!

There are a few medications that can alter the results of an allergy test. If you are taking any of the following, it’s best to consult with your doctor on how to proceed.

  • Antihistamines (over the counter and prescribed)
  • Antidepressants (specifically tricyclic antidepressants such as nortriptyline and desipramine)
  • Some Heartburn medications
  • Omalizumab (Asthma medication)

Who is an Allergy test for?

Who can get an Allergy Test?

Anyone can get an allergy test, although certain tests may have age restraints. For example, skin pick testing isn’t usually done on babies under 6-months old and Test Your Intolerance will only test clients from age 2 and up.

It’s worth mentioning that allergies aren’t fully developed until the age of 7, as the immune system needs time to mature, and many children actually outgrow their allergies.

Should I get Tested?

If you suspect that you might be dealing with a food allergy, the only way to know for sure is to get an allergy test. This isn’t something that needs debate. Getting an allergy test is crucial if you have any kind of suspicions, big or not. It’s much better to be safe than sorry as allergic reactions can escalate without warning. For example, mouth-tingling can grow into full-blown anaphylaxis in the blink of an eye.

Who is at risk of developing an allergy?

Children are more likely to have a food allergy than adults, as many do outgrow their allergies as their immune system develops. Research has indicated that delayed exposure to certain foods can increase the risk of allergies developing. This may be the cause of the recent boom in allergies, as in the past there was widespread fear of exposure causing allergies, and parents were encouraged to avoid common allergens until their children got older. 

Studies have indicated that people suffering from eczema or asthma are likely to develop allergies. With asthmatic and dermatological symptoms even being brought on by allergens.

Living With Allergies

 

While it’s not ideal to find out that you’re living with allergies, there are ways to make it manageable. The easiest way to prevent allergic reactions is to avoid the allergens altogether, but this isn’t always practical.

Your first course of action should be to keep a few tools to hand for symptom management;

  • Antihistamines – You can take these when you notice a reaction happening, or before being exposed to an allergen, to prevent a reaction from occurring.
  • Decongestants – There are tablets, capsules, nasal sprays and even liquids you can use when your allergy causes a blocked nose.
  • Moisturising lotions and creams can reduce redness and itchiness of the skin.
  • Steroid Medicines – creams, sprays, drops, inhalers and tablets that can help reduce redness and swelling caused by an allergic reaction. They help your body fight off the allergen.

For people who experience highly severe reactions, a treatment called immunotherapy may be recommended.

Now we’ll go into the details of managing specific common allergies. Not all allergies are created equal, and some are simpler to deal with than others.

House Dust Mites

Dust mites are tiny insects found in household dust, and they’re one of the biggest causes of allergies around. 

Here are a few ways you can limit the number of mites in your home: 

  • Choose wood or hard vinyl floor coverings instead of carpet
  • Fit roller blinds that are easy to wipe clean
  • Choosing leather or vinyl furniture instead of upholstered
  • Clean any cushions, soft toys, curtains and upholstered furniture regularly, either by washing (at a high temperature) or vacuuming
  • Make use of allergy-proof covers on mattresses, duvets and pillows
  • Use a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. This can trap more dust mites than ordinary vacuum cleaners
  • Regularly wipe down surfaces with a damp, clean cloth, and avoid dry dusting (this can spread dust into the air).
  • Focus on controlling dust mites in the rooms that you spend the most time, such as the bedroom and living room.

Pet Dander

It isn’t actually pet fur that causes allergic reactions, but flakes of their dead skin, saliva and dried urine. Lovely. Assuming you can’t avoid being around a pet, you can try:

  • Keep pets outside wherever possible, or limit them to an area of the house (preferably an area without carpet)
  • Not allowing pets in the bedrooms or upstairs
  • Washing pets at least once a week, to get rid of dead skin etc.
  • Grooming your pets outside
  • Regularly washing any bedding and soft furnishings that pets lay on
  • Using an air filter where you spend most of your time
  • Increasing ventilation around the home. Opening windows or using fans.
  • If you’re visiting someone with a pet, ask them not to dust or vacuum the day you’re visiting, preventing allergens from getting stirred up into the air.
  • Taking an antihistamine medicine about an hour before entering a pet-inhabited house- although this isn’t recommended if you live with the pet.

Mould

Moulds release tiny particles called spores into the air that can cause an allergic reaction in some people. You can help prevent mould, and it’s spores by: 

  • Keeping your home dry and well ventilated, opening windows or using air conditioning
  • Removing any indoor pot plants from your home
  • Avoiding drying clothes indoors and storing clothes in damp cupboards
  • Dealing with any damp and condensation in your home. Wiping it down or keeping a dehumidifier.  
  • Avoiding damp buildings, damp woods, compost heaps and freshly cut grass

Food Allergies

Food manufacturers are required by law to label any foods that contain common allergens clearly. You should carefully check the ingredients of the foods you eat to avoid an allergic reaction.

But labels are the easy part. It’s usually when eating out at a restaurant that people experience unexpected allergic reactions. To avoid restaurant surprises, you can:

  • Don’t rely on the menu description alone (many sauces and dressings can contain allergens)
  • Asking the waiting staff for their advice
  • Avoiding places where different types of food could come into contact with each other, like buffets or bakeries
  • Let the restaurant staff know about your allergy and how severe it is.
  • Check what allergens are in the dish you’re ordering, even if you’ve eaten it before – recipes and ingredients can change
  • Try ordering simple dishes, as they’re less likely to contain “hidden” ingredients. If you’re not sure, don’t risk it.

Hay fever

Pollen allergies (also known as ‘Hay Fever’) are caused by trees and grasses releasing pollen into the air. It’s often referred to by doctors as ‘rhinitis’.

As different plants pollinate at different times of the year, the months when someone gets hay fever will vary based on what sort of pollen they’re allergic to. Most people tend to get hay fever in the spring or summer, if their condition is caused by trees or grass, respectively. 

To help manage your hay fever symptoms, you can:

  • Check weather reports and stay indoors if the pollen count is high, where possible
  • Avoid drying your clothes and bedding outside when the pollen count is high
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes and pass for a triathlete
  • Keep doors and windows shut, so your house can remain a pollen-free zone
  • Change your clothes after being outside
  • Avoid grassy areas, especially in the early morning, evening or night, when the pollen count is at its highest
  • If you have a lawn, see if you can get someone else to cut the grass for you (you could always hire the neighbours’ kid)

Insect Bites and Stings

If you’ve ever suffered an adverse reaction to an insect bite or sting (other than the general upset and stinging pain), it’s vital that you take precautions to minimise future risks.

In the summer, when there are far more insects around, you can:

  • cover exposed skin, but be reasonable if it’s unusually hot
  • wear shoes instead of sandals or bare feet
  • apply insect repellent (unless you suffer from asthma!)
  • avoid wearing strong perfumes or fragrances – these can attract insects as they mistake you for a sweet-smelling flower

Preventing Severe Allergies (anaphylaxis)

If you’re at risk of having a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), be sure to you carry 2 adrenaline auto-injectors with you at all times.

Consider letting your teachers work colleagues and friends know about your allergy so they can give you your adrenaline injection in an emergency while waiting for an ambulance.

Conclusion

 

Allergies aren’t just an inconvenient condition; they can be deadly. With rises in the cases of NHS hospital submissions from anaphylaxis alone, there’s plenty of cause to be concerned. The likelihood that you may have or develop an allergy is getting higher and higher with each passing year and trust us when we say, you don’t want to discover that you have an allergy through experience. It’s much better and safer to learn about any allergies you have through proper testing than the alternatives. Stay safe and be aware of your body with IgE food allergy testing.

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