Today allergies affect more people than ever before and the numbers are still rising. This phenomena appears to be particularly true of the developed nations of the Western world, no more so than in the U.S. and UK. According to the statistics around 20% of people suffer from some form of allergy with the figures even higher amongst children.
But what causes these allergies and what is the most common thing people are allergic to? Strangely enough many of the common allergy triggers are as ancient as the immune systems which overreact to them causing the familiar runny nose, itchy eyes or skin rashes.
Whist virtually any protein can theoretically be an allergen it is often the same old usual suspects which set off people’s allergy. In some respects this is a blessing; it means the chances are your allergy is caused by a known allergen which you can work on avoiding. It also means there will be plenty advice and ways to lessen the symptoms of your allergy.
As they say – ‘forewarned is forearmed’ – so here are the ten most common things people are allergic to and some tips on how to avoid them:
Drugs & Medications
Allergies to certain types of medicine and drugs are quite common. This is regardless as to whether it is an over the counter, prescription or even a herbal medicine.
Perhaps the best known drugs that can cause allergic reactions are penicillin and related antibiotics but other medicines are also common triggers. These include anticonvulsants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen and chemotherapy drugs.
As with other allergies an adverse reaction will not occur the first time you take the medicine. Even medications that have been well tolerated in the past can trigger an allergic reaction. Common symptoms include hives, respiratory problems, swelling and possibly anaphylaxis in severe cases.
Just in case you needed another reason to hate cockroaches here it is! It seems that the universally unpopular insect is also capable of trigger both allergies and asthma. With anywhere between a quarter and a half of asthma sufferers being potentially allergic to cockroaches it is surprisingly common.
It is actually the skin, saliva and droppings of the cockroach that are the most allergenic. The particular variety of cockroach most associated with allergies are the German cockroach, followed by the American species.
None of this should be that surprising when you consider the number one allergen is also a bug -the dust mite. The symptoms are also similar with a stuffy nose topping the list, followed by itchy skin and on occasion year-round asthma symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath.
Bee and wasp stings (and to a lesser extent ants) are capable of causing a potentially severe allergic reaction. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population are believed to have some degree of allergy to insect stings with up to 3% of adults at risk from a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.
In mild cases a degree of swelling and itching may occur over a wide area around the sting, sometimes hives will appear on other parts of the body. All these symptoms respond to antihistamines but it is worth noting that these symptoms may be a sign that further stings may cause a more serious reaction.
Those at greatest risk from insect stings are advised to carry an epinephrine (adrenaline) auto-injector which they can use in the event of anaphylaxis.
Up until the end of the 1970s only 2 cases of latex allergy had been recorded in the UK. Now it is a common occupational hazard with up to 8% of healthcare workers reportedly allergic to latex making it one of the most common skin allergy causes. Reactions to latex cover the full spectrum of allergic responses from hives right up to anaphylactic shock. There is also the possibility of a skin allergy to the latex itself or contact dermatitis occurring due to chemicals used in rubber production.
Whilst rubber gloves are most commonly associated with latex allergy other products such as balloons, clothing elasticated waistbands and condoms to name but a few.
More worrying though are the array of medical products which have a latex component. These include catheters, IV tubes, dressings and of course the gloves worn by nearly all the staff. Fortunately many large hospitals are aware of the problem and have designated latex-free operating rooms.
Food allergies are particularly common in young children but the good news is they nearly always grow out of them. The most common food allergens in the under fives are milk and eggs but these are replaced by different foods in older sufferers.
Food allergy symptoms can range from the mild to severe with extreme cases resulting in anaphylactic shock. These adverse reactions can be triggered by only the tiniest amount of the food; cases have been reported where a person has suffered an allergic reaction after being kissed on the cheek by someone who had just eaten a packet of peanuts.
Over 90% of food allergies are caused by only eight different types of food: eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy (soya), tree nuts and wheat. Despite this relatively small number of allergens in the developed world in excess of 5% of the population have at least one true food allergy. However, as many as 20% of people wrongly believe they have food allergies. In these cases food intolerance is the likely cause. Unlike true allergy, food intolerance does not trigger the immune system and the symptoms are generally less serious, but none the less unpleasant.
The spores of some common varieties of mold can trigger allergic reactions in some people. It is hard to know the source of a particular mold allergy as they are found in many places throughout the year.
Whilst most of us would associate molds with damp corners in old houses this isn’t necessarily the case. Molds are a type of fungus found throughout the environment, indoors and out. Although indoor molds do cause year-round symptoms those found outside tend to release their spores in September and October contributing to the mix of seasonal allergies. Other fungal spores, such as mushrooms, can also cause the same allergic response in some people.
The symptoms most commonly associated with mold allergy are allergic rhinitis, i.e. runny / blocked nose along with itchy eyes and in some cases even eczema. Mold allergy is also a well known trigger of asthma and can actually be a contributing factor to the development of the condition.
Cute and loveable as our furry friends are they are also one of the most frequent causes of allergies accounting for nearly half of all cases of childhood asthma. In adults pet allergy symptoms are the general hay fever type symptoms of itchy eyes and runny nose, although this can be more severe.
It is the animal dander (skin scales and hair) that set off the allergic reactions. And although cats followed by dogs are the worst culprits, a wide range of other pets can also cause allergies – hamsters and parrots are frequent offenders.
As you would expect it is the pet owners and their families who bear the brunt of these allergies. However, these allergens are potent and “sticky”; for example sufficient levels of pet allergens can sometimes be found in schools or workplaces as they have been brought in on people’s clothes. Allergens can even, on occasion, be found in houses where pets haven’t lived for years.
One moderately effective way of dealing with pet allergies if you don’t want to say bye bye to your beloved little friend is a regular grooming and bathing routine. This has been shown to reduce household cat allergen levels by up to 90%
Everybody knows that pollen causes hay fever, but what many people do not realise is what kind of pollen. Sure flowers like the ones in your garden are responsible for some degree of hayfever but it is actually tree and grass pollen that are the main triggers.
As plants aren’t very good at getting around they release vast quantities of pollen into the air in the hope that some of it will find its way to another plant and make babies. What this means for the hay fever sufferer is that for half the year the air is laden with allergens.
The name hay fever gives a clue to the main culprit for these seasonal allergies – grass. These phenomenally common plants pump out pollen from spring through to the end of summer. With the use of a pollen calendar it is sometimes possible to match the timing of your symptoms to the plant responsible, although this doesn’t make avoiding them much easier.
Not only are dust mites not particularly pretty to look at they are also about the most common cause of allergies on the planet. Fortunately, or not, they are too small to see with the naked eye. Another unpleasant fact of dust mite allergy is that it is in fact the droppings that cause the allergic reaction.
Dust mites prefer warm, humid conditions and live by eating the tiny flakes of skin we shed every day. This means all but the most spotless, arid households are a haven for the little pests. Over recent years the situation has been made worse by the increased insulation, reduced ventilation and warmer rooms brought to us by the combination of double glazing and central heating.
As the dust mites live off human skin flakes it is not too surprising they are found in their greatest numbers where we spend the most time, i.e. the bedroom. Mattresses, pillows, bedding and even cuddly toys are some of their favourite places to lurk. The best solutions for getting rid of dust mites therefore revolve around keeping bedding as clean as possible including hot washes and even freezing cuddly toys to kill off the mites.