According to the World Allergy Organization (WAO), allergies are on the rise worldwide, with the majority of cases in children. Allergies are wide-ranging and affect individuals differently – from mild to severe. The causes to allergic reactions are exposure to pollen, dust mites, mould spores, pet dander (skin cells that come loose, like dandruff), food (especially peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soya, fish or shellfish, eggs and milk), medication (in particular penicillin or antibiotics with a penicillin base) and insect bites.
Allergic reactions are also varied. Here are some symptoms:
- Allergic rhinitis (hay fever) Congestion; tickly or running nose; itchy, watery or swollen eyes (conjunctivitis)
- Eczema Itchy, red, flaking or peeling skin
- Food allergy Tingling feeling in your mouth, swollen tongue, lips, throat or face; hives; anaphylaxis (extreme reaction and can be life-threatening)
- Insect sting Swelling where the sting occurred; itching or hives all over your body; tight chest, shortness of breath, cough; anaphylaxis
- Medication Rash; itchy skin; facial swelling; wheezing; hives; anaphylaxis.
WHO IS AT RISK?
There seems to be a genetic component to allergies, so if you have a family member who is allergic to something, you have a greater chance of having a similar allergy. Children are more susceptible to allergies and although these can be outgrown, they can emerge later in life. If you have an allergy, you’re more likely to get another one.
HOW DO YOU KNOW?
Unless you have a relatively severe reaction to a certain allergen, you may not know you are allergic to something. But, if you have consistent symptoms and you or your doctor suspect you have an allergy, there are certain tests that assist in a diagnosis.
- Skin test A small skin prick is made and exposed to small amounts of proteins found in the suspected allergen. If you are allergic to it, your skin will develop a hive on the pricked and exposed area
- Blood test Your blood is tested in a laboratory for the level of allergy causing antibodies (immunoglobulin E [IgE]) – called a RAST test.
Once those results indicate an allergy is present, a treatment plan can be determined. There’s no cure for allergies; however, they can be managed once the cause is identified.
You come into contact with the allergen, either through eating it, touching it or inhaling it
Your immune system sees the allergen as a foreign intruder and immediately begins to attack
The immune attack causes in- flammation in your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system
This is a severe reaction to an allergy and symptoms include: severe drop in blood pressure or light- headedness; loss of consciousness; severe shortness of breath; rapid, weak pulse; skin rash; nausea and vomiting; swollen airways (which can block breathing). If you or anyone around you experiences such a reaction from an allergen, it’s vital to get medical attention as soon as possible. If you know you have a severe allergy (for example, peanuts or bee stings), it’s a good idea to carry an injection of epinephrine with you at all times.
The first and most important part of managing allergies is to identify the triggers and avoid them. There are some medications that assist in reducing symptoms such as antihistamine pills, decongestants or corticosteroids.
If your allergy is severe, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy, where you are given a regular injection of purified allergen extracts (tiny amounts of what you’re allergic to are injected over time, effectively allowing your body to get used to the allergen without experiencing a reaction). These are administered over a period of a few years. Additionally, you may be given a single dose injection of epinephrine (adrenalin) to carry with you, if your allergy is so severe, that you may need anaphylactic symptoms to be reduced while you wait to receive emergency medical attention.
If your sinuses are affected, using a neti pot (similar to a tea pot with a long, curved spout to assist in rinsing out your sinuses) or specially designed bulb syringe to flush out your sinus passages will offer relief. Remember, though, to use distilled, sterile water. Additionally, keeping the air in your home as clear as possible from airborne allergens will also assist. Wash linen and soft toys regularly in hot water, maintain a low level of humidity in your home (you can do this by using a de-humidifier or an air conditioner). If you’re allergic to mould, avoid working outdoors in wet weather, wear a dust mask if you do, and keep your windows closed at night.
1 Pawankar R, Canonica G, et al (editors). White Book on Allergy. World Allergy Organization. 2011
2 Mayo Clinic. Allergies. Sep 2012