Allergies are common, with the World Allergy Organisation estimating they affect more that 20% of the population of most developed countries. In Europe, one in four children is allergic and around 87 million people have allergies.
In this article, we explore the most common types of allergy around the world, and how to know if you’re having an allergic reaction.
Allergic reactions happen when your immune system identifies certain substances as a potential threat. Contact with these allergens causes your body to fight back or go into shock, causing reactions like rashes, swelling or even difficulty breathing.
Doctors aren’t sure why some people develop allergies, but there are some allergens that are more commonly known to cause allergic reactions, such as animal hair, dust mites and certain foods.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction can vary from mild to severe, with the most severe leading to anaphylactic shock. However, many people with allergies don’t know they’re allergic until they have a reaction, so it’s important to have access to fast medical care in case of emergencies.
Allergies can be classified by how different allergens get into the body:
1/ Inhalant allergies
Hay fever, which is caused by breathing in pollen, is an example of a common inhalant allergy. Asthma, a chronic lung condition, may also have an allergic component.
People with hay fever and allergic asthma can reduce allergens in their home by taking steps like reducing dust-attracting clutter and keeping pets out of the bedroom.
2/ Food allergies and food intolerance
People who experience abnormal reactions after eating food may have a Food Hypersensitivity (FHS). An FHS that activates the body’s immune system is classed as a food allergy. All other reactions are called intolerances.
With food intolerances any allergic reactions are not life threatening. However with exposure to even minute amounts of a food in some food allergies, an allergen can trigger the immune system to produce chemicals called histamines which cause allergic symptoms varying from being mild to anaphylaxis that can be severe and even fatal.
Globally, it’s estimated that up to 550 million people suffer from some kind of food allergy. These will usually peak in childhood, with the highest number of food allergies recorded in the first year of life. However food allergies can also persist into adulthood.
Some common food allergies include nuts, seafood, soy, cow’s milk, hen’s eggs and strawberries.
3/ Contact allergies
Reactions that occur when the skin comes into contact with certain allergens is known as a contact allergy. One of the most common allergic reactions to contact allergens is contact dermatitis (itchy or swollen skin), which develops within minutes or hours of exposure.
Some common contact allergens include nickel, medications such as antibiotic creams, fragranced products, such as perfumes or cosmetics, and plants like poison ivy and mango.
4/ Drug allergies
This is when the body’s immune system fights back against certain active ingredients in medicines. Allergic reactions to drugs affect up to 10% of the world’s population and are commonly mis- or un-diagnosed.
Allergic reactions to drugs can be severe and even life threatening. Research suggests up to 20% of deaths due to anaphylaxis could be due to drug allergies.
The most common drug allergies involve antibiotics, such as penicillin, and cephalosporins, sulphonamides, aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
5/ Insect allergies
Some people have allergic reactions to certain insect venom, the most common examples being bee or wasp stings. These are common worldwide and usually produce a large local (defined as a reaction over 10cm in diameter which lasts over 24 hours) or a systemic allergic reaction ranging from mild to life threatening.
Insect allergies are widely left undiagnosed, with up to 50% of those with fatal reactions having no documented history of a previous systemic reaction.
If you think you might be having an allergic reaction, it important to seek medical attention straight away.
Some common allergic reaction symptoms include:
- sneezing and nasal congestion, or a runny nose
- itchy, watering eyes
- hives – an itchy, red rash
- swollen lips, tongues, eyes or face
- stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhoea
More severe allergic reactions can lead to anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. This is a life threatening condition and needs to be treated immediately.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis include any of the above symptoms, as well as:
- swelling of the face, lips, tongue throat or mouth
- difficulty breathing
- dizziness or light-headedness
- any itchy or red changes to your skin including blistering and skin peeling, blue tinging of skin or lips
- losing consciousness
Allergies are common all over the world. No-one knows exactly what causes someone to develop an allergic reaction, though there are thought to be some genetic links that make certain people more susceptible.
It doesn’t matter which country or continent you live on, allergens are everywhere. And if you have an allergy, exposure could cause an allergic reaction.
According to statistics reported by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergic rhinitis (hay fever) affects between 10% and 30% of the population worldwide.
Other common allergies include:
- foods, such as milk, eggs and nuts
- animal fur
- certain drugs
- insect stings
Data from UKGM shows how common different types of allergy are around the world:
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