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An allergy is when the body reacts to something that is normally harmless (allergens). For example, allergens include tree and grass pollen, foods such as peanuts, milk and eggs and insect stings.

Symptoms of allergies can be mild, such as a runny nose or sneezing. However, allergies can also cause more serious symptoms, such as hives (a raised rash), diarrhoea, feeling or being sick, and swollen eyes, lips, mouths or throat.

In some cases, allergies can cause anaphylaxis; this is a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction to a trigger, such as an allergy. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include breathing difficulties, a fast heartbeat and collapsing or losing consciousness. The NHS has published information on allergies.

Adrenaline auto-injectors should be used to treat people who are experiencing anaphylaxis. These often come in a ‘pen’ format which can be injected into the skin; common brands in the UK include EpiPen and Emerade. Adrenaline helps to reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. The NHS advises that an ambulance is requested via 999, even if the affected person starts to feel better. The NHS provides further information on anaphylaxis.

Allergy Awareness Week

In general, health awareness weeks are used to increase knowledge and understanding of a particular health issue. Organisations and patient groups may also use them to call for additional support for affected people.

Allergy UK, a national patient charity for people living with allergy, held Allergy Awareness Week between 24 and 28 April 2023.

During this week, Allergy UK launched a call for each NHS Integrated Care Board, or equivalent, in the UK to have at least one specialist allergy nurse and dietitian within its region. Allergy UK proposes that this would enable people living with allergy to access better quality care, advice and support in a timelier manner.

Allergy UK have highlighted a petition on the UK Government Parliament website calling for the same provision. At the time of writing, the petition had received 796 signatures.

Allergy UK says the call is central to peoples’ ‘right to quality care’, as laid out in its Patient Charter.

Different organisations and countries hold Allergy Awareness Weeks. For example, the World Allergy Organization is due to hold one between 18 and 24 June 2023.

Support for people with allergies

NHS services in England

Allergy services are generally commissioned on a local basis by Integrated Care Systems, whereas NHS England commissions specialised immunology and allergy services.

People with suspected allergies may be referred by a GP to an allergy clinic for tests. The NHS website explains which tests may be carried out here:

  • a skin prick or patch test – where a small amount of the allergen is put on your skin to see if it reacts
  • blood tests – to check for allergens that may be causing your symptoms
  • a special diet where you avoid or eat less of a food you might be allergic to, to see if your symptoms get better.

Treatments are available where an allergy is identified. The NHS website sets these out:

  • trying to avoid the thing you’re allergic to whenever possible
  • medicines for mild allergic reactions likeantihistaminessteroid tablets and steroid creams
  • emergency medicines called adrenaline auto-injectors, such as an EpiPen, for severe allergic reactions
  • desensitisation (immunotherapy) for severe allergic reactions – this involves carefully exposing you to the thing you’re allergic to over time, so your body gradually gets used to it and does not react so badly (this should only be done by a medical professional).

Support organisations

Allergy UK provides support and information on allergic conditions online and via a helpline. It also offers more complex advice from an expert clinical team and a dietitian service for babies and young children.

Anaphylaxis UK is a charity offering evidence-based information for people with allergies, their families, businesses and educational establishments.

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