From insect bites to dust mites, know how to cope when your body comes over all defensive.
What is an allergy?
People can be allergic to all kinds of different substances, from pollen to pet fur and base metals, household dust, certain foods and medicines.
Why am I allergic?
Your body's immune system is designed to protect you from infection. When a harmful substance (i.e. a virus or bacteria) enters the body of someone with a sensitized immune system, antibodies quickly arrive to begin the process that deals with it.
Symptoms of this immune process can include itching, coughing, wheezing, hives and rashes, but it's a small price to pay for potentially saving your life. With allergies, the system mistakes otherwise harmless substances for something more dangerous, and triggers the immune response.
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms vary from one person to the next, but a great deal depends upon the type of allergy and individual levels of sensitivity. Generally, the area of the body where the allergen has come into contact is most affected.
For example, the runny nose and itchy eyes that crop up with hay fever is associated with inhaling pollen, while an allergic reaction to an insect bite could cause the surrounding tissue to swell up. Always consult your doctor (GP) if the symptoms persist, or if breathing difficulties kick in.
All ingredients are required, by law, to be listed on food packaging, regardless of the amount contained in the product. This is designed to make it easier for people with food allergies to determine whether or not the product is safe for them to eat. Some manufacturers even go as far as informing the consumer that the product has been near foods that may cause allergic reactions. So, you might see labelling along the lines of 'may contain traces of nuts', however this kind of labelling isn't compulsory.
The Food Standards Agency offers an email and text alert service to inform you when a food product has been withdrawn from the shelves due to missing or incorrect information about its ingredients. If your food allergy is severe you'll need to be clued up about reading food labels, though. In these cases, it's best to stick to the rule 'if you don't know what's in it, don't eat it.'
There is no medical 'cure' for allergies, but you can often avoid the substance responsible, and the symptoms can still be treated. Antihistamines may help reduce some of the effects of an allergic reaction, but always talk it over with your GP or pharmacist first.
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