g, wheezing or coughing. In extreme cases, an
allergic reaction can even be fatal. Most allergies appear mild in medical
terms, but the scale of the problem is approaching epidemic proportions.
About a third of the UK population will suffer from an allergy during
their lifetime, according to a recent report from a House of Lords science
and technology committee. That figure has trebled in the past 20 years and
increases by 5 per cent each year. Britain's allergy levels dwarf the rest
of Europe. In fact, the UK has one of the highest incidences of allergic
diseases in the world.
Jonathan Brostoff, professor of allergy and environmental health at King's
College London, says our desire to avoid allergens may be partly to blame.
"A study shows that one in 60 children is allergic to peanuts in the UK,
compared with one in 600-plus in Israel," he says. "This may be because
Israelis give their babies a corn and peanut cracker to suck on.
"The hypothesis is that their guts become much more tolerant to peanuts.
In England, where pregnant women have been advised to avoid nuts since the
1990s, allergy rates have skyrocketed."
Attempts to become more hygienic may also be counterproductive, he argues.
"An absence of environmental factors can allow allergies to happen.
Studies show that if you are not exposed to lots of microbes, your immune
system will get bored and react to allergens instead."
So a child born into a family with a cat, for example, is less likely to
be allergic than one without. But that does not fully explain people's
likelihood to develop an allergy. Some allergies run in the family, while
air pollution, processed foods and an over-reliance on antibiotics may
play a part as well.
"Antibiotics kill useful bacteria in the bowel, which can upset the
function of the bowel," says Don Harrison, from the British Institute for
Allergy and Environmental Therapy. "Meanwhile, diesel engines release fine
carbon particles into the atmosphere that can contribute to hay-
Whether you are allergic to house dust mites, pets, pollen or wasp stings,
it is worth visiting your doctor, who can arrange a test that will
identify the type of allergen
Allergies are caused when the body's immune system mistakes seemingly
harmless substances for harmful ones. It reacts by making antibodies,
which leads other blood cells to release further chemicals (including
histamine). Together, this causes the symptoms of an allergic
- Avoid the allergen.
- Anti-histamines, available from pharmacists, treat most allergies.
- Decongestants are useful for hay fever, dust and pet allergies.
- Nasal spray and eye drops.
- Hyposensitisation: the person is gradually introduced to an increasing
amount of allergen to encourage the body to make antibodies. This can be
effective in tackling a specific allergy such as bee stings, but must be
supervised by a doctor.
Keep your home dry and well ventilated. Open windows, dry clothes outside
and turn down central heating.
Vacuum regularly. Remove cushions and use bedding made of synthetic
fabric. Avoid feathered pillows or woollen blankets.
If allergic to dust mites, hot wash sheets and pillows once a week.
If you suffer from hay-fever, wear sunglasses and stay indoors when the
pollen count is high.
If allergic to pets, only allow them into one carpet-free room. Do not
allow them into the bedroom.