Allergies Explained

by Adam Gould
Allergies Explained

An itchy, runny nose. Red eyes. Wheezing, sneezing and angry, blotchy skin. Its not a good look. But these are all symptoms that affect a surprisingly large number of us – in other words, people with allergies.

According to the NHS, at least one in four people in the UK has one or more allergies at some point. Other experts say it could be more like one in three. And anyone – even the healthiest among us can be affected, from babies to centenarians.  

What we dont know is exactly why some people develop allergies while others dont. There could be a genetic link, since some types of allergies can often run in families (this is called atopy). Scientists have even tried to pin allergy susceptibility down to specific genes, with one studyidentifying no fewer than 132 genes that may be involved with the allergy process.

What causes allergies?

Thankfully we do know a lot more about how allergies develop. And at the centre of everything is the immune system:

An immune system thats working normally protects the body against infection by viruses, bacteria and other nasty organisms – it recognises harmful bugs then hunts them down and destroys them.

If you have an allergy, your immune system recognises something harmless as being a threat and acts to destroy it. These harmless substances are called allergens.

The process that starts an allergy is called sensitisation, and it can happen the first time you come into contact with an allergen or at any time, even if youve been exposed to the allergen for years.

Once sensitised to an allergen your immune system reacts the next time youre exposed to it. This sets off a chain of events, one of which is the release of a chemical called histamine. When released into your system histamine causes a range of allergy symptoms, including itching, sneezing, wheezing and skin rashes.

Did you know? A weak immune system can leave you more susceptible to infections. But allergies are the result of your immune system reacting strongly to an allergen. So if you have the sniffles all the time it may not be a sign that your immune system is below par in fact, you could argue its quite the opposite.

Common allergies

There are many different allergens but the ones that cause most allergic reactions include pollen, dust mites, moulds, pet dander (particles of skin shed by animals with fur or feathers), insect venom, medicines and foods. These cause a range of allergies, including:

Allergic rhinitis   There are two types - seasonal (hayfever) and perennial, which affects you all year round (cold-like and itchy nasal symptoms).

Asthma   Breathlessness, wheezing and a tight chest caused by inhaling allergens (though other things can trigger asthma too).

Eczema   When skin comes into contact with an allergen it becomes itchy, dry, cracked and sore.

Urticaria   Also known as hives (itchy, raised red patches or spots).

Allergic conjunctivitis   Watery, itchy, sore and puffy eyes that feel hot and gritty.

Food allergy   Reactions to foods including fish, shellfish, nuts, milk and eggs causing rashes, wheezing and itching (not to be confused with food intolerance, which typically triggers digestive discomfort and migraine). Food allergies can be serious and even life threatening (see When allergies get serious, below).

Did you know? Allergies are on the rise. We dont know exactly why, but one theory is that todays environments are so clean and free of germs (relatively speaking), our immune systems have less to deal with and start reacting to harmless substances instead. This is backed by studies suggesting children who spend their early years on a farm have fewer allergies later.

All that pollen's making me sneeze

Of course its no coincidence were talking about allergies right now, just as summer is approaching. Hayfever is a common allergy, with more than 45,000 people seeing their GP with symptoms a week during peak pollen season in England alone. But hayfever doesnt just happen in the spring and summer months. Its triggered more than 30 types of tree, grass and weed pollens, some of which can be released as early as January and as late as September:

Tree pollen   This usually being released in late March and continues to mid-May, though alder, hazel and yew pollens can sometimes be released in January while pine and lime pollens can continue through July.

Grass pollen   The grass pollen season typically runs from mid-May to July, but it has been known to start early in May and last until September.

Weed pollen   Plants like rape seed, plantain, nettle, dock and mugwort start releasing pollen at the end of June and continue until September (though the season can last longer).

If youre truly unfortunate you could be allergic to several types of pollen and sneeze your way from winter through spring and summer and on to autumn.  

Did you know? Flower pollen is relatively heavy and sticky, which means it doesnt usually become airborne and cause hayfever symptoms. Tree, grass and weed pollens are lighter, so theyre more likely to linger in the air and reach your eyes, nose and mouth.

Summer is also less fun for anyone whos allergic to bug bites (imagine trying to relax at a picnic or barbeque with legions of angry wasps buzzing around if youre allergic to wasp venom). Even staying indoors isnt an option if you react to dust mites (though to be fair thats a problem all year round, not just during the summer).

Did you know? Bee and wasp venoms contain different allergens (phospholipase A2 and mellitin in bee venom and antigen 5 in wasp venom, in case you were asking). Thankfully, scientists say those who are allergic to one type are rarely allergic to the other.

When allergy gets serious

Any allergy can make life miserable, but some people have far bigger problems. A severe allergic reaction often caused by insect bites or stings, foods or medicines is called anaphylaxis.

With anaphylaxis symptoms start suddenly, get worse very quickly and can be very severe. These include breathing difficulties, lightheadedness or fainting, rapid heartbeat, clammy skin, anxiety and losing consciousness. Since it can be potentially life threatening, anaphylaxis is classed as a medical emergency.

Someone who has anaphylaxis will usually wear a medical emergency bracelet and carry an adrenalin pen (an EpiPen, for example). If you ever see someone going into an anaphylactic shock, call 999 immediately. You may also have to help them administer their adrenalin shot just dont go all Pulp Fiction and try stabbing the needle into their heart a leg, arm or any other muscle will do just fine! 

Did you know? According to Patient UK, half a million people in the UK have had an anaphylactic reaction to venom from bees or wasps, while almost a quarter of a million under-45s have had anaphylaxis caused by nuts.

How to get some relief

Avoiding your particular allergen is undoubtedly the best way to keep allergy symptoms under control. But its not always practical. Thankfully modern medicine has a few tricks up its sleeve to help allergy sufferers live normally. There are lotions and creams for skin reactions, nasal sprays and eye drops for nose and eye symptoms, and decongestants to help unblock a blocked nose. But the main type of allergy medicine is antihistamines.

Antihistamines work by blocking the effect of histamine in the body. Available as tablets, liquids, creams, eye drops and nasal sprays, they can be used daily – in the case of hayfever, for example or whenever you notice youre having a reaction. But some types of antihistamines can make you drowsy, so ask a pharmacist to recommend one that will work for you (the drowsy ones can actually be beneficial if you struggle to sleep because of your allergies). 

Alternatively you could try natural antihistamines if your symptoms arent that bothersome. Herbal remedies including bromelain, nettle and quercetin are a few examples, or you could try vitamin C which is also a natural antihistamine (one study confirms its a safe, natural allergy therapy). For best results, go for a high-strength product such as our Vitamin C 1000mg with Wild Rosehip & Citrus Bioflavonoids.

Gut health is also crucial, as your gut microbiota supports your immune system. Theres even evidence to suggest taking probiotic supplements to keep your gut flora healthy can help relieve allergies and even prevent them. A review of atopic dermatitis studies has also found arguments to support using probiotics for eczema.   

Fancy trying a probiotic? Our Bio Cultures Complex Advanced Multi-Strain Probiotic has 45 billion CFUs from 15 probiotic strains, which means it provides a high-strength dose plus its suitable for adults and children.

Other helpful supplements include a high-strength multivitamin and mineral to support your immune system and health in general. Fish oils are another good option, with a study suggesting diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C could reduce the risk of hayfever. And lets not forget vitamin D: research claims it may improve asthma symptoms in older people with low vitamin D levels. Theres also a strong case for supplementing your levels of magnesium and zinc, both of which have key roles in keeping your immune system healthy.

Whatever you decide to try, make sure your supplement wont cause a problem – this is why, wherever possible, our products are free from potential allergens like additives and preservatives.

Did you know?   If youre finding your hayfever symptoms arent so bad this year, it could be down to the coronavirus pandemic. One study found hayfever symptoms in nurses were reduced in 2020 because theyd used face masks more often. Whod have thought?

The crux of the matter

Allergies can be a nuisance, as anyone who spends half their life checking food labels or hides indoors with the windows shut at the height of summer knows too well. But even those with severe allergies can have a normal life (or pretty near-normal, at least). Modern medicines do an amazing job of reducing allergy symptoms, its just a question of management, especially when you cant avoid the thing youre allergic to.

And even if you dont have any allergies, ask yourself if you might be exposing yourself far too frequently to a potential allergen – after all, anyone can develop an allergy at any time, even to things they havent had any problems with before (though theres no way of knowing before it happens). If in doubt, as they say, stay safe it could be a quick win for your overall wellbeing.

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by Adam Gould