Are your symptoms actually signs of an allergy?
-May 7, Caroline Blight, Health -
An allergy is the body’s immune system responding to what would normally be considered a harmless substance such as pollen, food, mould, pets’ hair, insects, medicines or house dust mites. The body perceives this substance to be a ‘threat’ and produces an inappropriate response, with symptoms usually starting within a few minutes but also as long as two hours later.
“Allergy is the most common chronic disease in Europe,” notes Allergy UK “Up to 20% of patients with allergies struggle daily with the fear of a possible asthma attack, anaphylactic shock, or even death from an allergic reaction.” Of course we are all aware of sever allergies which cause the sufferer to fall into a life or death situation, but not all reactions are as dramatic. So you may find that your ‘summer cold’ which just doesn’t shift or that itchy red skin you have tried moisturising but just won’t clear up are actually allergies.
Allergy symptoms are not always dramatic
Some reactions can be subtle and as a result may be mistaken for other conditions. For example you may have the symptoms of a cold but find that your usual cold and flu go-to makes no difference – or that you have additional symptoms with it such as a rash or runny eyes. It could be that the symptoms flare up or recede depending on your environment. So when you are in the office they are worse than your own home or vice versa. Hay fever is an allergy but people suffer a myriad of symptoms so your experience of it could be very different from your friend or another family member.
Common symptoms to look out for, according to the NHS, include:
- sneezing and an itchy, runny or blocked nose
- itchy, red, watering eyes
- wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and a cough
- a raised, itchy, red rash
- swollen lips, tongue, eyes or face
- tummy pain, feeling sick, vomiting or diarrhoea
- dry, red and cracked skin
How is an intolerance different from an allergy?
An intolerance is usually food or drink related and is due to a difficulty digesting certain foods and experiencing physical symptoms as a result of eating them, with symptoms emerging hours to days later. “Allergies give an immediate reaction when they make contact (internally or externally) with the body, and are with you for life,” explains Sian Baker, from home intolerance testing kit makers LifelabTesting.com.“Intolerances can cause a reaction up to four days later and can change over a six month period.”
That’s not to say intolerances are not as debilitating as an allergy. Previously long-winded exclusion tests were used but how testing is more through and you can even use home kits to provide a blood sample to be tested.
How to find out what you are allergic to
As well as taking anti-histamines in order to control your immune systems reaction to an allergen, avoiding the source of the problem is also important. It can be hard to tell what you are allergic to when you are having a more subtle response though. Try keeping a diary of what you have eaten, where you are and what you have touched to try and pinpoint what is setting your symptoms off. For example you may find that whenever you put your make up on you sneeze or cough when you are in the shower which could be a sign you are allergic to the fragrance used in products.
Commonly a skin test is used to diagnose allergies. This sees a small amount of common allergens placed on the skin and left for a set amount of time to see if a bump or rash forms. Allergy patients are often sensitive to many allergens, but are only clinically allergic to one or two so specialists are needed to pinpoint the culprit. If it’s proving tricky to diagnose the source of the problem with a skin test, blood tests can be used instead.
Living with an allergy
Sometimes avoiding an allergen can be impossible. But reducing your exposure to it can help. So if dust mites are your issue then you will never be able to keep away from them but you can step up your cleaning, use specialist pillows and bedding, vacuum your mattress regularly and take steps to minimize your exposure. If you have hay fever as well as taking antihistamines at the appropriate time of year try tricks like coating the end of your nose with Vaseline so you inhale less pollen and wash your face regularly throughout the day.
Knowledge is power and understand what is setting off those annoying symptoms which seem not to go away will allow you to explore the best fix for your problem. And hopefully bust those irritating niggles for good!