If you suffer from allergies you'll know how unpleasant they can be. But are the problems of our own making? Hannah Frankel reports.Allergies can result in much more than a runny nose. They can also cause discomfort and itching in the ears, eyes, throat and palate, alongside frequent sneezing, wheezing or coughing. In extreme cases, an allergic reaction can even be fatal. Most allergies appear mild in medical terms, but the scale of the problem is approaching epidemic proportions. About a third of the UK population will suffer from an allergy during their lifetime, according to a recent report from a House of Lords science and technology committee. That figure has trebled in the past 20 years and increases by 5 per cent each year. Britain's allergy levels dwarf the rest of Europe. In fact, the UK has one of the highest incidences of allergic diseases in the world.
Jonathan Brostoff, professor of allergy and environmental health at King's College London, says our desire to avoid allergens may be partly to blame. "A study shows that one in 60 children is allergic to peanuts in the UK, compared with one in 600-plus in Israel," he says. "This may be because Israelis give their babies a corn and peanut cracker to suck on.
"The hypothesis is that their guts become much more tolerant to peanuts. In England, where pregnant women have been advised to avoid nuts since the 1990s, allergy rates have skyrocketed."
Attempts to become more hygienic may also be counterproductive, he argues. "An absence of environmental factors can allow allergies to happen. Studies show that if you are not exposed to lots of microbes, your immune system will get bored and react to allergens instead."
So a child born into a family with a cat, for example, is less likely to be allergic than one without. But that does not fully explain people's likelihood to develop an allergy. Some allergies run in the family, while air pollution, processed foods and an over-reliance on antibiotics may play a part as well.
"Antibiotics kill useful bacteria in the bowel, which can upset the function of the bowel," says Don Harrison, from the British Institute for Allergy and Environmental Therapy. "Meanwhile, diesel engines release fine carbon particles into the atmosphere that can contribute to hay-fever."
Whether you are allergic to house dust mites, pets, pollen or wasp stings, it is worth visiting your doctor, who can arrange a test that will identify the type of allergen
Allergies are caused when the body's immune system mistakes seemingly harmless substances for harmful ones. It reacts by making antibodies, which leads other blood cells to release further chemicals (including histamine). Together, this causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
- Avoid the allergen.
- Anti-histamines, available from pharmacists, treat most allergies.
- Decongestants are useful for hay fever, dust and pet allergies.
- Nasal spray and eye drops.
- Hyposensitisation: the person is gradually introduced to an increasing amount of allergen to encourage the body to make antibodies. This can be effective in tackling a specific allergy such as bee stings, but must be supervised by a doctor.
Keep your home dry and well ventilated. Open windows, dry clothes outside and turn down central heating.
Vacuum regularly. Remove cushions and use bedding made of synthetic fabric. Avoid feathered pillows or woollen blankets.
If allergic to dust mites, hot wash sheets and pillows once a week.
If you suffer from hay-fever, wear sunglasses and stay indoors when the pollen count is high.
If allergic to pets, only allow them into one carpet-free room. Do not allow them into the bedroom.