Everything You Need to Know About Allergies

Find out all you need to know about allergies. Read our resource & understand what allergies are and how to identify their symptoms.

Allergies are common and it’s estimated that they affect 1 in 4 in the UK. They exist in different forms, but essentially an allergy is the response your body’s immune system has to a normally harmless substance. Your Alphega pharmacist is a great source for advice and guidance on how best to manage and prevent allergies.

Find your local Alphega Pharmacy by searching here. (Services may differ between pharmacies so get in touch with your local pharmacy to make an enquiry).

What are the most common allergens?

The most common allergens are:

  • Pollen from trees and grasses
  • House dust mite, moulds
  • Pets such as cats and dogs
  • Insects like wasps and bees
  • Industrial and household chemicals
  • Medicines
  • Foods such as nuts, milk and eggs

What are the symptoms of allergies?

The release of histamine from cells causes the symptoms of an allergy. The most common symptoms of allergies are:

  • Sore, red, itchy and watery eyes
  • Frequent sneezing
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Sinus problems
  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Itching of the roof of the mouth or throat
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing or breathing problems
  • Vomiting
  • Itchy inflamed skin or a rash
  • Loss of concentration
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea

How to avoid your allergy triggers:

This is very important but not always easy. Some allergens are easier to avoid than others. When you can’t avoid an allergen, try to reduce your contact with it. Remember to ask your local Alphega pharmacist for advice or further information on how best to manage your allergy.

  • Take your medicines as prescribed. They can be helpful for managing your symptoms. Take them while also avoiding allergens.
     
  • If you are at risk for anaphylaxis, keep your epinephrine auto-injectors with you at all times. Epinephrine is the only treatment for a severe allergic reaction. It is only available through a prescription from your doctor. Each prescription comes with two auto-injectors in a set.
     
  • Keep a diary. Track what you do, what you eat, when symptoms occur and what seems to help. This may help you and your doctor find what causes or worsens your symptoms.
     
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet (or necklace). If you have ever had a severe allergic reaction, please wear a medical alert bracelet. This bracelet lets others know that you have a serious allergy. It can be critical if you have a reaction and you are unable to communicate.
     
  • Know what to do during an allergic reaction. Have a written anaphylaxis emergency action planDownload PDF. It tells you and others what to do in case you have allergic symptoms or a severe allergic reaction. Always ask your doctor if you have any questions.

Preventing Hay fever

If you suffer from Hay fever, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your symptoms. Remember to speak to your Alphega pharmacist who can give you advice and further information on the solutions available that are best suited to reducing your allergy.

  • Check the weather reports for the pollen count and stay indoors when the count is high

  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses to protect eyes from pollen

  • Keep doors and windows shut during mid-morning and early evening, as this is when there is most pollen in the air

  • Avoid grassy areas, such as parks and fields

  • Get someone else to cut the grass for you

  • Change clothes and take a shower after being outdoors to remove pollen

  • Keep car windows closed, and consider buying a pollen filter for the air vents in the car

  • Keep fresh flowers out of the house

  • Don’t smoke in the house or breathe in other people’s smoke as this may irritate any symptoms

  • Mould spores also aggravate hay fever. They are released when there is a sudden rise in temperature in a moist environment, so we suggest: keep the house dry and well ventilated; and do not dry clothes indoors, or store clothes in dam

  • Use dehumidifiers to help reduce damp

Treating hay fever

Before going to see your GP, you could visit your Alphega pharmacist and try to treat your hay fever symptoms with over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines.

Make an appointment to see your GP if your symptoms don't improve after using antihistamines. You may need treatment with prescription medications, such as nasal steroid medication (corticosteroids).

The various treatments for hay fever are outlined below:

Antihistamines

treat hay fever by blocking the action of the chemical histamine, which the body releases when it thinks it's under attack from an allergen. Antihistamines are usually effective at treating itching, sneezing and watery eyes, but they may not help with clearing a blocked nose. They're available in tablet form and also as nasal sprays and eye drops.

  • Take them when you first notice you're developing the symptoms of hay fever
  • Use as a preventative treatment – for example, if you know there's going to be a high pollen count, you can take them before leaving the house in the morning

Different antihistamine tablets for hay fever include cetirizine, fexofenadine and loratadine. Azelastine is an effective antihistamine nasal spray and olopatadine is an antihistamine eye drop.

Unlike older antihistamines, these newer types shouldn't cause drowsiness, although this can occasionally happen to some people.

If you do become drowsy after using antihistamines, you should avoid driving or using heavy tools or machinery. You should also contact your GP or pharmacist, as there may be an alternative antihistamine you can take.

Corticosteroid nasal sprays and drops

They are used to treat hay fever because they have an anti-inflammatory effect. When pollen triggers your allergic reaction, the inside of your nose becomes inflamed. Corticosteroids can reduce the inflammation and prevent the symptoms of hay fever.

Corticosteroid nose drops (containing betamethasone and fluticasone) are more powerful than corticosteroid nose sprays and shouldn't be used for prolonged periods of more than 2 to 4 weeks.

Corticosteroids are better than antihistamine tablets at preventing and relieving nasal symptoms, including sneezing and congestion. They can also relieve itchy, watery eyes. They're most effective if you start using them a couple of weeks before your symptoms begin, and work best when used regularly.

It's important that you read the instructions that come with your medication, as applying the drops or the spray incorrectly can increase your risk of developing side effects, such as:

  • irritation and dryness of your nose
  • bleeding from your nose
  • unpleasant taste in your mouth
  • itchy skin rash around your nose

Corticosteroid tablets

If you need short-term relief from severe symptoms – for example, if you have an exam or driving test coming up – your GP may prescribe a course of corticosteroid tablets for 5 to 7 days. The use of corticosteroids for longer than 10 days isn't recommended, because the longer you take steroid tablets the more likely it is you'll begin to experience unpleasant side effects, such as:

  • weight gain
  • changes in mood, such as feeling irritable
  • acne

Nasal decongestants

Hay fever can cause a blocked nose and a decongestant, in the form of a nasal spray, can relieve this. Decongestants reduce the swelling of the blood vessels in your nose, which opens your nasal passage and makes breathing easier.

Your GP can prescribe a nasal decongestant, but there are many available from your pharmacist. Check the ingredients, as some decongestants also contain antihistamine. If they do, they may relieve other symptoms as well. If not, the decongestant will only relieve your blocked nose.

Nasal decongestants shouldn't be used for longer than 7 days. They may cause dryness and irritation in your nasal passage, and can make the symptoms of congestion worse (this is known as rebound congestion or rhinitis medicamentosa).

Eye drops

They are available from your pharmacist to treat the hay fever symptoms that affect your eyes, such as redness, itchiness and watering (allergic conjunctivitis). The drops contain antihistamine, such as azelastine and olopatadine, to reduce the inflammation in your eyes, which will relieve the symptoms.

Always check the patient information leaflet for the correct way to use them. Some may cause side effects, such as a stinging or burning sensation in your eyes.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are the main medicines for allergies and can be taken as tablets, creams, liquids, eye drops or nasal sprays. They can be used:

  • as and when you notice the symptoms of an allergic reaction
  • to prevent allergic reactions – for example, if you know the pollen levels are high, you may take them in the morning before you’re exposed to any pollen

Decongestants

They are available as tablets, capsules, nasal sprays and liquids and they can be used as a short-term treatment for a blocked nose caused by an allergic reaction. We recommend that you don't use them for more than a week at a time, as using them for long periods can make your symptoms worse.

Lotions and creams

Red and itchy skin caused by an allergic reaction can sometimes be treated with over-the-counter creams and lotions, such as:

  • emollients (moisturising creams) to keep the skin moist and protect it from allergens
  • calamine lotion to reduce itchiness
  • steroids to reduce inflammation

Immunotherapy

If you have persistent hay fever symptoms that aren't relieved by the above treatments, your GP may refer you for immunotherapy treatment. This involves gradually introducing you to small amounts of the allergen (the substance you're allergic to), such as pollen, and monitoring your allergic reaction in a controlled environment.

Immunotherapy is only carried out in specialist medical centres, in case a serious allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis, occurs.

The allergen can be given to you as:

  • an injection into your skin – this is known as systemic injection immunotherapy (SIT)
  • a tablet that dissolves under your tongue – this is known as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT)

After the initial treatment, you'll be monitored for up to an hour.

Further doses of SLIT can safely be administered at home after an initial dose has been given under medical supervision.

To work in the first year, treatment should be started 3 months before the pollen season. As you get used to the allergen, the amount used will slowly be increased. You'll gradually start to build up immunity to the allergen, and your allergic reaction to it should get less severe. 3 years of treatment is recommended to achieve long-term pollen desensitisation.

Immunotherapy can improve your tolerance of the allergen, which can improve your quality of life and have long-term results. However, if you don't see a significant improvement in your symptoms during the first year, then the treatment is unlikely to help and shouldn't be continued.

Immunotherapy (desensitisation)

This may be an option for a small number of people with certain severe and persistent allergies who are unable to control their symptoms using the measures above.

The treatment involves being given occasional small doses of the allergen, either as an injection, or as drops or tablets under the tongue, over the course of several years. The aim is to help your body become accustomed to the allergen so it doesn’t react to it so severely. The injection can only be performed in a specialist clinic under the supervision of a doctor, as there's a small risk of a severe reaction.

This won't necessarily cure your allergy, but it'll make it milder and mean you can take less medication.

Steroids

Can help reduce inflammation caused by an allergic reaction.

They're available as:

  • nasal sprays and eye drops for an inflamed nose and eyes
  • creams for eczema and contact dermatitis
  • inhalers for asthma
  • tablets for hives (urticaria)

Sprays, drops and weak steroid creams are available without a prescription. Stronger creams, inhalers and tablets are available on prescription from your GP.

Treating severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis)

Some people with severe allergies may experience life-threatening reactions, known as anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. If you're at risk of this, you'll be given special injectors containing a medicine called adrenaline to use in an emergency. For more advice, visit your local Alphega pharmacist.

Summary

Allergies can develop at any time in your life. What’s important is for you to understand the triggers, recognise any symptoms and know what to do in the event of an allergic reaction. Your Alphega pharmacist is a great source for advice and guidance on how best to manage and prevent allergies. Find your local Alphega Pharmacy by searching here.