If you are reading this article because you or someone close to you live with allergies, do not worry, you are not alone. At EFA, we represent the 150 million of Europeans living with allergies. With forecasts stating that if the situation does not change, by 2025 1 in 2 Europeans will suffer from allergy as well. We work hard to avoid this number becoming a reality.
What is allergy?
Your immune system is designed to protect your body against attacks from harmful elements like bacteria, but in the case of allergies, your immune system efforts are misguided. Allergies are your body’s response to harmful substances “allergens”. Your body identifies allergens such as cat hair, dust or whatever you are allergic to as a threat, producing an inappropriate response, including life-threatening anaphylaxis.
The most common sources of allergens are: house dust mites, pollens, pets, fungal spores, mould, food (particularly milk, eggs, wheat, soya, seafood, fruit and nuts), wasp and bees stings, medication, latex and household chemicals (irritants such as detergents and fragrances).
There are several types of allergies:
- Respiratory allergies: allergic rhinitis, rhinoconjunctivitis and allergic asthma, which cause sneezing, runny nose and sinus problems, and also red, watery and itching eyes ,wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
- Skin allergy (dermatitis), also called atopic dermatitis (eczema) and contact dermatitis, which mainly cause different types and severity of skin rash.
- Other allergies: food allergies and insect venom, which cause different types of reactions that may be life-threatening (anaphylaxis) in some cases.
How does asthma affect my body and life?
People who live with allergies react aggressively producing immunoglobulin (IgE) antibodies against allergies and activate their immune cells. These cells release substances, histamine is one of these, causing allergy symptoms, such as sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, itchy eyes, nose and throat. In severe cases, allergy may manifest as asthma, rhinitis and conjunctivitis (hay fever), eczema, or other symptoms.
If the whole body suddenly responds to the allergen, there will be an acute, generalized allergic reaction, which is called “anaphylactic” reaction. Anaphylactic reactions may result in the drop of blood pressure, causing severe swelling of airways which can cause an anaphylactic shock. This can be very severe and may even be fatal.
Allergies profoundly affect the quality of life of patients. Depending on the severity of the disease and its predictability, patients will need to adapt their lifestyle to avoid being in situations or in contact with the elements that trigger symptoms to them. The need to check and control the existence of allergens can be a source of distress and anxiety for patients and their carers.
Allergies also have an economic dimension for patients. They might hinder patients to avoid certain professions and find jobs adapted to the environment they need. When symptoms appear they affect our productivity and, to it is usually more expensive to purchase items (food, furniture, cleaning products) that do not contain the allergens responsible for our symptoms.
Who gets allergies?
Anyone can have an allergy, it knows no boundaries and affects differently people of all age groups. About half of the people with allergy are children.
Some people are more likely to develop immunoglobulin (IgE) antibodies to allergens because it runs in their family. If this is the case, you are said to be atopic, or to have atopy. People who are atopic are more likely to develop allergies because their body produces more IgE antibodies than normal.
Environmental factors also play a part in the development of allergies. The exact role of the environment is unknown, but studies have shown that a number of factors seem to increase the chance of a child developing atopy, such as:
- growing up in a house with smokers
- using antibiotics unnecessarily
- a certain level of exposure to dust mites
- a certain level of exposure to pets
Allergy usually happens after repeated exposure to the allergen. The initial process leading an individual to react to allergens is called “allergic sensitisation”.
What is the impact of allergies in Europe?
Today, 150 million Europeans live with allergies and it is estimated 1 in every 2 Europeans will suffer from an allergy by 2025. However, approximately 45% of patients never received a proper diagnosis.
At EFA, we advocate to improve early diagnosis as the estimated costs of untreated patients amounted to a reduction in performance at work by 10-30%, which is a monetary loss of 24-72 EUR per day. This is quite a contrast, compared to the cost of treatment, which is 1 EUR per day.
Who can help me?
We recommend you to visit a medical specialist on allergies (allergologist), as they have been trained to deal with allergies and can give you advice on dealing with symptoms and provide treatment that can help you. In some countries, allergologists are scarce, ENT specialists deal with allergic rhinitis. In mild allergies cases, your general practitioner may be able to help you.
You can also contact one of our Member associations in your home country, in your own language, who will kindly respond to your questions and give you personalised advice.
To know more about our work on allergy, please visit our Allergy Awareness project and the EU funded project MeDALL.