It is important to act as quickly as possible, from when the first symptoms begin to appear in order to limit further complications.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is an abnormal and extreme reaction from the immune system when the body is exposed to a substance (an allergen) which it recognises as a foreign body. Allergies can come from a large variety of different elements such as pollen, dust, food or even medicines. Despite the proportion of people who suffered from allergies being at a minimum in the 1960s, it has since skyrocketed. In the UK, it has been found that over 20% of the population has some kind of allergy nowadays.
‘Incidences of allergic reactions are continually increasing’, confirmed Michèle Raffard, an allergy specialist who was formerly based at the Pasteur Institute. Nowadays, one Frenchman out of four suffers from an allergy concerning their breathing and one in three of these cases involves allergic rhinitis, namely the irritation or inflammation of the mucus membrane in the nose, explains the Agence-France Press (AFP). According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the proportion could continue to rise up to half of the global population by 2050.
However, today there are very few people in the UK who consult their doctor about their allergies, according to the specialists. The Association for Asthma and Allergies has highlighted that, ‘an allergy sufferer will wait for approximately seven years before going to see their doctor. But allergies which are not controlled risk getting worse’. But in order to react, we must be able to recognize the symptoms.
How to recognize the symptoms of an allergy?
Whether it is a breathing, food, medical or another allergy, they can all produce large variety of symptoms. The most common signs are nasal irritation (blocked nose, runny nose, itching, sneezing) and asthma for respiratory allergies, eczema and rashes (flat, red, itchy areas) for skin allergies.
With regards to food allergies, the signs can be very varied. Some allergies produce symptoms on the skin (rashes, oedema), respiratory symptoms (difficulty breathing, asthma) or digestive symptoms (diarrhea, abdominal pain). Reactions can also be much more severe, even as serious as anaphylactic shocks (like oedema, asthma, diarrhea, low blood pressure in the arteries, even cardiac arrest).
Even for medicinal allergies, different types of symptoms to those previously mentioned can occur. Insect venom (wasps, hornets and bees) is also a source of allergies. In this case, the latter often produces swelling around the site that has been bitten/ stung, but can also lead to the appearance of more general and serious reactions.
Allergies: determining the allergens which cause them
When an allergic reaction takes place, it is important to discover what is causing it, or in other words, identify the allergen. In order to do this, you must consult a specialist who will ask the patient questions about the circumstances in which the allergy arose, and will also confirm a diagnosis by carrying out certain tests.
These tests will involve exposing the patient to a small quantity of potential allergens in order to determine the one, or ones, which are producing the excessive reaction by the patient’s immune system. This is done through skin tests or taking blood samples. From this point onwards, we can then take the necessary measures to ‘eliminate’ the exposure to the allergen if possible. For example, the aim will be to get rid of dust, animal fleas, pet hairs and mould from the household as much as possible. For pollens, the situation is more tricky but you can give up activities which involve long contact with the allergen, such as walks in the forests or picnics in the park.
Treating symptoms to avoid complications
At the same time, it is necessary to ‘treat mild symptoms to restrict their development' because outbreaks can get worse when you come into contact with allergens, that is to say for substances such as pollen grains or cat fur which provoke reactions, explained the allergy specialist Michèle Raffard. In order to reduce and treat symptoms, antihistamine, corticosteroid or bronchodilator treatments can usually be prescribed for occasional mild allergies. Nonetheless, for chronic or sever allergies, a course of ‘allergen immunotherapy’ or desensitization is advised. According to the association, this is ‘the only therapeutic solution aimed at dealing with treating allergies in the long term’.
This solution involves familiarising the organism with the allergen so that it no longer recognises it as a foreign body, and therefore the immune system will no longer produce an excessive allergic reaction. However, desensitisation cannot be used to treat all types of allergies. It requires more treatment over several years and only shows a variable effective outcome depending on the individual patient.
‘Depending on how long the patient has suffered from the allergy and the patient’s immune system, the effectiveness will vary in around 70% of cases’, indicated Michèle Raffard. It’s better to go to a specialist doctor as early as possible to gain some advice.