What are allergies?

Allergy is a phenomenon associated with many medical conditions, including hay fever, eczema, urticaria, asthma and anaphylaxis. Treatment involves the identification of the cause of the problem and choosing from the many treatment techniques the best combination for the individual patient. Food allergies and intolerances can cause many symptoms and their identification and avoidance can have a significant impact on health. Nutrition is also important, particularly as the healing process is very demanding of micronutrients such as zinc and other minerals and vitamins. Various techniques of desensitisation can also be very helpful in managing symptoms. Recent trials, published in the British Medical Journal, of the herbal remedy butterbur have shown significant benefit in hay fever.

Allergic conditions

Hay Fever is an allergy to grass pollens and is one variety of allergic rhinitis. The typical symptoms of itchy nose, sneezing and sore, runny eyes are well known. The same symptoms can also occur at times of the year when the pollen count is low and other airborne particles are present in large numbers – such as moulds, tree dander etc.

Eczema is an inflammatory process in the skin causing redness, itching, dryness and, in severe cases, discharge, cracking and bleeding. Some patients are born with an allergic tendency, inherited from their parents – a condition known as “atopy”. Others have specific allergies or intolerances to foods or chemicals and yet others may become sensitised to commonly used chemicals to which they are repeatedly exposed. This leads to contact dermatitis and can be caused by chemicals such as nickel in jewellery, chromium in cement or detergent in washing powder. Identification and avoidance is helpful but often impractical. Various techniques can be used to try and settle the problem

Urticaria is a skin rash which is triggered by an allergen, often food, chemical or drug. It manifests as, often widespread, itching “wheals”, like a nettle rash, which are red and white, raised in the centre and can occur without warning. Some trigger factors are known, such as the chemical salicylate which is found in aspirin and many foods, but often the cause is unknown and therefore hard to manage.

Asthma - this is an inflammatory condition of the lungs, often triggered by allergy or intolerance. Symptoms can range from mild, such as an irritating cough, up to severe wheezing with a productive cough and shortness of breath requiring hospitalisation. It is treated in conventional medicine using the “step-wise” approach and involves the use of “reliever” inhalers, “preventer” inhalers and various chemical blockers which are designed to block chemicals such as histamine and cytokines which are produced as part of the allergic reaction. “Preventer” inhalers tend to be steroid-based, although Sodium Cromoglycate can be used in mild cases. Oral steroids are also used in severe asthma. They can certainly be life-saving in acute situations but tend to cause side-effects if used over a long period of time.

Anaphylaxis – this is a severe, often life-threatening allergic reaction which can be triggered by substances which are usually harmless to most people. Foods such as peanuts or shellfish can produce the symptoms which may include swelling in the mouth and around the throat and upper airways. This can cause breathing difficulty and, in severe cases patients can go blue and suffer collapse, shock and even death.