Allergies and how to treat them

If you suffer with an allergy, you're not alone. Half the British population now has at least one allergy, with the most common complaint being hay fever, say researchers - and it looks set to get worse. An estimated 15 million people in the UK already suffer with hay fever, but that number is expected to double to 32million by 2030 due to air pollution and more people moving to the cities. This all costs the NHS around one billion a year.

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So what are allergies and can they be treated? An allergy causes an adverse reaction from the immune system and severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis shock) can see cause rash, itchy eyes, swelling, runny nose and unconsciousness in sufferers.

An allergic person's immune system produces a special type of antibody (IgE) to attack what it believes is invading material. This leads other blood cells to release further chemicals (including histamine) that cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

The most common causes of allergy are pollen from trees and grasses, house dust mite, mould, pets such as cats and dogs, insects like wasps and bees, industrial and household chemicals and medicines. Typical food allergies include milk, peanuts, fish and shellfish, cows' milk, eggs, Soya and wheat.

In order to find out about allergy testing you should contact your doctor, nurse, health visitor or local hospital. Tests to find out what is causing an allergy could be a blood test, skin prick or patch test. Blood tests will usually be used when there is a severe skin condition. With food it's often fairly obvious which food is causing the problem and testing is usually carried out in hospital in case of severe reaction. The problem with allergy testing is that there are only 90 testing centres in the UK. This means you could have to join a waiting list to find out what you are allergic to.

For food allergies the only treatment is avoidance. A dietician can help you identify and remove the food from your diet while making sure you don't miss out on essential nutrients. In some cases, mild allergic reactions can be treated with antihistamines but you should consult your doctor first.

The range of treatments available for allergy sufferers is quite small. Antihistamines are a popular treatment and have become more sophisticated in recent years. Another common treatment or allergy management system is the use of long term, low dose steroids.

There has been success in treating certain allergies like hay fever with small amounts of the allergen itself. Taken orally or via injection, this treatment is known as desensitisation immunotherapy. This treatment can take around 12 weeks to be effective but is not very successful in treating food allergies.

A new development that is creating some excitement is something called monoclonal antibody treatment. Patients with allergies have increased levels of IgE, monoclonal antibody proteins cling to IgE in the bloodstream and render it inactive. This stops allergies from developing. This new treatment is still in its early days and is quite costly.