An allergy is the response of the body's immune system to normally harmless substances, such as pollens, foods and house dust mite. Common symptoms can include sneezing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, sinus pain, runny nose, rash, hives, swelling, itchy eyes, ears, lips throat and mouth and sickness, vomiting and diarrhoea. You may notice a worsening of asthma or eczema symptoms.
There are 3 key things to remember when managing your allergy:
- Documenting where and when an allergy occurs
- Reducing the risk of an allergic reaction by avoiding the allergen where possible
- Medical treatments are available to reduce symptoms and include medications and immunotherapy.
The most common causes of allergic reaction are:
- pollen from trees and grasses (hay fever)
- dust mites
- moulds – small particles in the air
- foods – such as shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, cow’s milk and eggs
- pets - such as cats and dogs, and other furry or hairy animals such as horses, rabbits and guinea pigs
- insect bites and stings
- medicines which can include ibuprofen, aspirin and certain antibiotics
- latex – often used in disposable gloves and condoms
- household chemicals and hair dyes
Managing an allergy - In many cases, the most effective way of managing an allergy is to avoid the allergen that causes the reaction whenever possible. Advice on dealing with some of the most common allergens is given below:
House dust mites – are one of the biggest causes of allergies. They are tiny insects found in household dust. There are several practical solutions to limit the number of mites in your home and to get maximum impact you should concentrate your efforts in the areas of your home where you spend the most time. Limit the number of mites found by:
- choosing wood or hard vinyl floor coverings instead of a carpet
- fitting roller blinds that can be easily wiped clean
- choosing leather, plastic or vinyl furniture instead of upholstered furniture
- cleaning cushions, soft toys, curtains and upholstered furniture regularly, either by washing (at a high temperature) or vacuuming
- using tested allergy-proof covers on mattresses, duvets and pillows
- using a vacuum cleaner fitted with a hepa (high efficiency particulate air) filter, as it can trap more dust mites than ordinary vacuum cleaners
- regularly wiping surfaces with a damp, clean cloth – avoid dry dusting, as this can spread dust into the air
Pets – A pet’s dead skin, saliva and dried urine will cause an allergic reaction. If you are unable to re-home a pet, you could try:
- keeping pets outside as much as possible, or limiting them to an area of the house, preferably an area without carpet
- not allowing pets in bedrooms
- washing pets at least once a week and grooming them regularly outside
- regularly washing all bedding and soft furnishings pets lie on
- increasing ventilation with fans or air conditioning, or by opening windows
- using an air filter in rooms where you spend most of your time
- If you're visiting a friend or relative with a pet, ask them not to dust or vacuum on the day you're visiting, as this will stir up the allergens into the air.
Taking an antihistamine medicine about an hour before entering a pet-inhabited house can also help reduce your symptoms.
Mould spores – are the tiny particles released by moulds can cause an allergic reaction in some people. You can help prevent this by:
- avoiding damp buildings, damp woods and rotten leaves, cut grass and compost heaps
- keeping your home dry and well ventilated, dealing with any damp and condensation found quickly
- not drying clothes indoors, not storing clothes in damp cupboards and avoiding packing clothes too tightly in wardrobes
- removing any indoor pot plants from your home or if you like to have plants indoors, use pea-shingle to cover the soil in the plant pot as this will stop the mould settling and forming
Food allergies – Make sure you carefully check food labelling for the list of ingredients and avoid any known allergens. If you are eating out, you need to consider:
- not relying on the menu description alone (remember, many sauces or dressings could contain allergens)
- avoiding places where there's a chance that different types of food could come into contact with each other, such as buffets or bakeries
- letting restaurant staff know your dietary requirements, including how severe your food allergy or intolerance is, making sure to communicate clearly.
- always checking what allergens are in the dish, even if you have eaten it before, as recipes and ingredients can change
- remember that simple dishes are less likely to contain "hidden" ingredients. If you're not sure about a dish, do not risk it.
Hay fever – is caused when trees and grasses release pollen into the air. Different plants pollinate at different times of the year, so the months you get hay fever will depend on what sort of pollen you're allergic to (typically, trees in spring and grasses in summer).
To help keep your hay fever under control, you can:
- check weather reports for the pollen count and stay indoors when it's high, if possible
- avoid drying clothes and bedding outside when the pollen count is high
- wear wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes
- keep doors and windows shut when possible
- shower and change your clothes after being outside
- avoid grassy areas, such as parks and fields, particularly in the early morning, evening or night, when the pollen count is highest
- if you have a lawn, try asking someone else to cut the grass for you
Insect bites and stings - If you have ever suffered a bad reaction to an insect bite or sting, it's important to take precautions to minimise your risk. When you're outdoors, particularly in the summer, you could:
- cover exposed skin
- apply insect repellent
- avoid wearing strong perfumes or fragrances, as these can attract insects
- wear shoes
Preventing severe allergies (anaphylaxis) - If you're at risk of experiencing a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), make sure you carry 2 adrenaline auto-injectors with you everywhere. Wearing a MedicAlert or Medi-Tag medallion or bracelet can make others aware of your allergy in an emergency. Consider telling your teachers, work colleagues and friends so they can give you your adrenaline injection in an emergency while waiting for an ambulance.
Medicines available - there are several medicines available to help control symptoms of allergic reactions, including:
- antihistamines – these can be taken when you notice the symptoms of a reaction, or before being exposed to an allergen, to stop a reaction occurring
- decongestants – tablets, capsules, nasal sprays or liquids that can be used as a short-term treatment for a blocked nose
- lotions and creams, such as moisturising creams (emollients) – these can reduce skin redness and itchiness
- steroid medicines – sprays, drops, creams, inhalers and tablets that can help reduce redness and swelling caused by an allergic reaction
For some people with very severe allergies, a treatment called immunotherapy may be recommended. This involves being exposed to the allergen in a controlled way over several years, so your body gets used to it and does not react to it so severely. This would only be recommended in the most severe cases.