Know your allergy triggers
If you suffer from allergies, knowing what can trigger or aggravate symptoms is crucial. Dr Emma-Jane Down offers insight into common allergic triggers and how to be ready to tackle them.
Allergies on the increase
According to figures from Allergy UK, a massive 21 million people in the UK suffer from at least one allergy and by 2015 predictions suggest 50 per cent of Europeans will be affected by allergies.
Children can be particularly susceptible to allergies such as allergic rhinitis and eczema, say Allergy UK, with 50 per cent affected by one or more allergy by the time they’re 18 months old.
“The body can sometimes react to something harmless that it thinks is actually a threat,” explains GP, Dr Emmajane Down. “The body remembers the exposure and, the next time it comes into contact with the ‘threat’, it overreacts and causes an allergic reaction.”
For allergy sufferers, there are various factors that can trigger symptoms and these often become more apparent at certain times of year.
With the warmer summer weather kicking in, it’s a common time for allergies such as hay fever, plus some pollen sensitivities may cause cases of eczema to flare up.
The most common things that cause allergic reactions are pollens, dust mites, pets, moulds, latex and nuts, says Dr Down.
“Anaphylaxis is a severe life-threatening reaction that can occur from many things such as insect stings (particularly wasps and bees) and foods such as seafood and nuts.”
According to the Met Office, the pollen season in the UK usually runs from March to August, but in some cases can start as early as January and end as late as November.
Different types of pollens are rife at different times of the year. In the UK, the big pollen culprits are:
• Tree pollen – from late March to mid-May
• Grass pollen – from mid-May to July
• Weed pollen – from the end of June to September
The National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit say that 25 per cent of the UK’s hay fever sufferers are affected by birch pollen and it has a high level of allergenicity. It often cross-reacts with hazel and alder pollen and, for people allergic to tree pollens, the symptoms can start to get bad during the winter.
Birch pollen can be an issue in other parts of the world too – it’s common across much of Europe, Asia and Northern US – causing sensitivities to those living or travelling in these regions. Ragweed is also very allergenic and a leading allergen in the US; it can cause issues in the UK during August and September.
Why and how are reactions triggered?
How the body reacts to allergens depends on how it comes into contact with them. “If you breathe in a pollen that you’re allergic to, you’d develop nasal symptoms, breathing difficulties or asthma,” explains Dr Down.
“If you eat the allergen, then you can develop swelling of the lips, tongue or throat before breathing difficulties begin. The skin can also react to allergens, causing rashes or eczema.”
One of the best ways to manage allergies is to avoid the triggers. Whilst this can be achievable for allergens in your home or diet, it’s harder to control allergens that occur in the environment, from different plants or trees, or in areas when you’re away. If you’re aware that tree, grass or weed pollens are problematic, it’s worth checking when these are in their prime and, where possible, avoiding places where they may be prevalent, such as parks, woods or forests.
Warding off allergic attacks
If you can’t prevent an attack entirely, then the next best step in your allergy-fighting approach is to ensure you know how to treat an allergic reaction and are equipped with the necessary treatments.
Pollen allergies that cause hay fever can be treated with nasal drops, eye drops and antihistamines, whilst minor skin allergies can be treated with steroid creams and emulsifying lotion.
“If you’ve ever had a severe allergic reaction – anaphylaxis – you’ll need to carry two adrenaline pens, called EpiPens, with you at all times,” advises Dr Down. It’s also advisable to wear a Medic Alert bracelet describing the allergy in case of emergency.
If you’re travelling on holiday, remember to take enough medications with you and familiarise yourself with medical services in the local area you’re visiting, just in case you need them.
“Asthmatic children should carry inhalers with them at all times and take plenty of spare inhalers in case the asthma worsens in a new environment,” advises Dr Down.
Allergies can be very unpleasant, and it’s hard to see a child suffering, but by getting to know allergy triggers, you can become better placed to limit contact and deal with them.
For advice on making your home an allergy-free zone read our feature on ‘Are you allergic to your house?’ or visit our Allergies Centre for information on the common allergies that can affect anyone.
Met Office pollen forecast