How to deal with allergies
It appears that we're becoming more allergic to food, pollen, medicines and all kinds of substances. So are doctors just getting better at spotting the signs or is there something else going on?
Allergy UK says that 30-35% of the worldwide population will suffer from an allergy at some point, and there is an upwards trend of allergy sufferers. The trend began in the USA and Europe, but it's now affecting other countries undergoing industrialisation.
Experts think this rise is allergy could be due to increasing air pollution, a change in our diet towards more processed foods, or due to our sterile environments and the lack of exposure to germs in early childhood.
Whatever the reason, allergies can be serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses. Let's take a look at the different type of allergies out there and what can be done about them in honour of the USA's React with Respect food allergy awareness week, which takes place on the 8-14th May.
What Exactly is an Allergy?
It's basically a massive overreaction with added drama; your immune system is freaking out. Normally the body's immune response is appropriate and it won't react to a harmless substance, however an allergy happens when the immune system sees something harmless as a threat, and produces an exaggerated response. How melodramatic, but joking aside, experts know how this happens, but not why.
How To React?
When someone tells you about their allergy, don't panic and assume they'll burst into flames like someone opening the curtains on a vampire. Ask them questions but don't nag or judge. Accept it and move on, we're all different.
Here are some of the most common allergies and how to deal with them...
Food allergies come in many forms. Nuts and shellfish are probably the most commonly recognised, but people can be allergic to eggs, milk and even champagne. National treasure Stephen Fry is allergic to champagne and tennis superstar Serena Williams is allergic to peanuts, so if you have an allergy you're in good company.
Symptoms of severe food allergy are:
Anaphylaxis - a swollen throat, breathing difficulties, swollen lips, feeling sick and a rapid heartbeat. This is a medical emergency and requires an ambulance. If you think you might have an allergy, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible to get emergency medication such as an epi-pen. An epi-pen delivers a small amount of epinephrine to counteract the allergic response.
"Hold on! My aunt's ex boyfriend's stepmother is allergic to wheat" you say "but she doesn't need an ambulance?" That's because she has food intolerance, which is different.
Difference Between Allergy and Food Intolerance
Food intolerance is not caused by the immune system. It can come on slowly over a few hours or days unlike the massive and sudden allergy response. Food intolerance, such as gluten (wheat) intolerance, won't kill anyone but it can produce symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, irritable bowel, nausea, lethargy, skin rashes, and fatigue. Needless to say, if these symptoms cause distress or worsen, it's important to seek medical advice. Food intolerance can make life miserable.
In the meantime, you can do some undercover work to find out what's causing the problem. It's a simple as a food diary...
You keep a note of what time you've eaten or snacked on food and record symptoms over the following few days. It's important to only cut out one source at time e.g. dairy or wheat to avoid confusion.
Humans have lived with animals for years but for some, their saliva, sweat and urine can cause an allergic reaction.
When an animal grooms itself, saliva coats their skin and hair. When they shed or moult, this 'dander' spreads around the home causing allergies such as skin rashes, itchy eyes, sneezing, and even triggering asthma in prone individuals. You can make things better by:
- Groom your cats and dogs outdoors
- Bathe your pets. Allergy UK says bathing your cat twice a week reduces allergens by 90%. Good luck with that - invest in Kevlar
- Wash hands thoroughly before eating and after handling pets
- If you're asthmatic, keep medications and plans up-to-date
- Wash bedding frequently
- Use a dehumidifier to keep the air moist
- Don't let pets in the bedrooms
- Hoover frequently and throw away rugs. Hardwood floors help because allergens can't get caught in the fibres
- Some find antihistamine medication helps
- Rehoming pets as a last resort
Seasonal hay fever
Hay fever, medically known as allergic rhinitis, is an allergy to pollen.
Hay fever can rear its itchy head anytime the trees, grass and flowers are blooming. Grass is the most common trigger usually affecting people between May and July when pollen is released. For some who are allergic to other plants, the hayfever season can start as early as February (that's me - an allergy to pine tree pollen) or as late as October for those with plant mould issues. Antihistamines can help - here are some more tips:
- Keep windows closed during the day and night
- Put Vaseline on your eyelids and inside your nostrils to catch pollen
- Wear sunglasses
- If you're asthmatic, keep up-to-date with your asthma plan and keep medications nearby
- Don't dry washing outside because it gets coated in pollen
- Keep an eye on the weather forecasts that often give a pollen count during the summer months. If it's high be prepared
- Wash your hands and brush your hair when you arrive home
- Keep car windows closed
- Keep antihistamines in your bag just in case the conditions change on a day out. You're safe on the coast though because that stiff breeze blows pollen inland
- Persistent symptoms of allergic rhinitis may require a steroid nasal spray from your doctor, particularly if your nose is blocked solid
Allergies can range from the irritating right through to life-threatening. The trick is to do your research and be prepared. Ask your doctor for help if you can't pinpoint a cause or find a suitable treatment. Allergy is common and there are plenty of ways to keep yourself safe and make your life more comfortable.