A Patient Journey for Allergies

Allergies are extremely common; they are thought to affect around one in four people in the UK at some point in their lives and are particularly common in children. Allergies can increase or decrease over time and you may develop an allergy to something you previously did not have an allergy to before.

Living with an allergy may affect your day to day activity but there are many ways you can keep an allergy under control and still enjoy your life.

Substances that create an abnormal reaction in people are known as allergens. When the body's immune system comes into contact with an allergen it produces antibodies (proteins used by the body to combat viruses and bacteria) which trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine. These chemicals can produce a range of allergy symptoms from mild itching to a reaction known as anaphylaxis (A life threatening condition which includes symptoms such as swelling of the eyes, lips, mouth, or extremities, severe itching and most importantly difficulty breathing. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency and medical help should be sought immediately). 

Symptoms depend very much on the substance involved and varies from person to person.What to expect if you think you have an allergy

Common allergies include;

  • Food allergies - the most common are nuts, cow’s milk, shellfish and fruit.
  • Grass and tree pollen - also known as hayfever.
  • Medication - such as Ibuprofen, aspirin, some antibiotics
  • Latex - found in some disposable gloves, balloons and condoms.
  • Mould
  • Dust mites
  • Some animal’s - most common are cats and dogs.
  • Household chemicals - such as cleaning products and hair dye. Read more about an allergy to hair dye.

If you suspect that you may be allergic to a substance, then you should make an appointment to see your doctor. Your doctor will begin by asking you about your symptoms; for example when they began, any factors that make the symptoms better or worse, whether you have pets, what medications you take, what treatments you have tried for the symptoms, and whether there is any family history of allergy. It is helpful if you keep a diary of your symptoms and possible trigger factors, and report on this to your doctor. Your doctor will usually also examine you (for skin rashes, for example) and may recommend a specialist allergy test, such as a blood test, a skin test, or both. These are usually carried out by allergy specialists. In the case of a suspected food allergy, the doctor is likely to suggest removing it from your diet before reintroducing it to see if it triggers your symptoms. Your GP will most likely refer to a specialist if your symptoms are severe or if there is any history of anaphylactic (anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention as it is a threat to life. Symptoms include; swelling of the eyes, lips, hands and feet, a swollen tongue, throat or mouth which causes difficulty breathing, the loss of consciousness) reaction. In cases of anaphylaxis the doctor may give you an emergency adrenaline injector to carry with you at all times. This is an auto injector pen which has clear instructions on the side to inform others how to use. If you have a history of severe allergic reactions, especially those which may require the use of an auto injector a medical alert bracelet or necklace is a good way of informing others of your condition. Read more about avoiding and preventing allergic reactions.

There are various forms of treatments which can be used to help manage an allergy. These include avoidance of the allergen, various medication and immunotherapy.

  • Emollients - lotions and creams prescribed for the treatment of dry skin conditions. They work by creating a protective barrier on the skin which reduces water loss and moisturises. Emollients will not cure dry skin conditions; instead they help to relieve symptoms such as itching and allow the skin time to heal. Read more about emollients and moisturisers here.
  • Decongestants - these can be used to relieve a blocked nose caused by an allergy. They should only be sued for a short period of time as long term use can cause your symptoms to become worse. They are usually taken in the form of an oral tablet or capsule, a nasal spray or a liquid.
  • Steroids - corticosteroids are almost identical to the natural hormone cortisol which is produced by the body. Corticosteroids should not be confused with anabolic steroids which are often highlighted in the media as being abused by sports people. They work by reducing inflammation and are given in the form of a topical cream (a cream applied directly to the skin, such as hydrocortisone), inhaled directly into the lungs (through an inhaler, usually in the treatment of asthma) they are also available in the form of tablet (taken orally usually only after a severe asthma attack or allergic reaction).
  • Antihistamines - are a well-known type of allergy medication used to relieve symptoms of an allergy. They are available from a pharmacy and do not usually require a prescription. There are various generations of antihistamine and which categorised into first, second and third. The most common types of antihistamine contain the ingredients cetirizine or loratadine. These types of antihistamine are designed to not make you feel drowsy. First generation antihistamine such as those containing diphenhydramine or chlorphenamine can often have the side effect of making people drowsy. Antihistamines usually come in the form of a tablet (taken orally), topical creams (applied to the skin) or a liquid (again taken orally) which are useful for children. You can also find eye drops and nasal sprays which can provide soothing relief for allergies of the eyes and nose.  Read more about antihistamines.

Another form of treatment for allergies is immunotherapy (also known as desensitisation). The aim of this treatment is to help your body get used to an allergen by introducing small amounts to your body over a period of time. The allergen is given occasionally in the form of drops or tablets (under the tongue) or through injections. The treatment can last several years and should provide some relief from allergy symptoms rather than a cure.

talkhealth suggests three allergy-related charities and support groups: Allergy UK, Action Against Allergy, and Allergy Academy.

You can also visit our talkallergy forum to talk to other allergy sufferers, and visit our allergy blog to keep up-to-date with the latest news and opinions on allergy-related issues.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request.

Last revised: 9 November 2016

Next review: 9 November 2019