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The boy with hay fever, the girl who can’t go near dogs without developing a rash, the woman who can’t put her hands into detergent and the man who develops nasty-looking red blotches if he eats strawberries, all have allergies.

As is the case with so many symptoms, when you have an allergic reaction it is because your body is trying to protect itself. The symptoms (itching, sneezing, watering eyes or nose or a red rash) simply mean that the body’s defence mechanisms have overdone things. Allergy reactions are simply immune reactions that have gone wrong.

When an allergy reaction is due to something that has been swallowed (such as a food or a drug) then the whole body will be affected. Usually there will be a red, itchy rash over most areas. So, the reaction of someone allergic to penicillin will be very similar to the reaction of someone allergic to lobster.

When an allergy reaction is due to something which has been in contact with one part of the body, then the symptoms are likely to be more specific. Hay fever sufferers commonly have itching eyes, a runny nose and bouts of sneezing because the pollen only affects the areas around the nasal mucosa. Women who are allergic to eye makeup will only develop puffiness and itchiness around their eyes. Men allergic to oils will develop symptoms on the parts of their bodies which have been in contact with oil. The reaction we show after being stung or bitten by an insect is an allergic reaction. The reaction is to poison, saliva or some other substance left in the body by the insect.

Most allergies are annoying rather than dangerous. Obviously dangerous allergies (which may be heralded by a really severe reaction sometimes accompanied by breathlessness and other serious problems) need medical help. Less serious allergies can be dealt with without professional advice.

The basic weapon against an allergy reaction is an antihistamine. Before I go any further I must warn you that an antihistamine is a sub- stance which has been described as a drug which turns a sneeze into a yawn. Every year there are new antihistamines brought out which manufacturers claim cause less drowsiness. Within months it is usually perfectly clear that the new ‘wonder’ drugs can cause drowsiness. The best thing to do is to experiment with antihistamines until you find the one that causes you least drowsiness. Car drivers should be particularly aware of this complication and of the fact that alcohol makes the drowsiness worse.

Having said that, it is important to make it clear immediately that antihistamines are extremely effective. They ought to be: when a trigger produces an allergy reaction, the body’s defence mechanisms include the production of a chemical called histamine. It is this substance which produces the irritation and rash which so often accompany an allergy reaction.

Some of the best-known antihistamine drugs are Actidil, Anthisan, Benadryl, Daneral SA, Dimotane, Fababistin, Haymine, Histryl, Optimine, Periactin, Pbenergan, Piriton and Pro-Actidil. Each product has its fans. Prices vary considerably and I suggest that if you’re experimenting, you start with the cheapest.

Incidentally, dark glasses may relieve some of the eye symptoms associated with hay fever. I do not recommend the use of antihistamine eye drops unless the drops have been prescribed by a doctor.

Nor do I recommend that you buy nose drops or sprays (such as Antistin, Fe/iox, Hayphryn and Otrivine) without a doctor’s advice unless you restrict your use of them to five days or less, because the nasal mucosa is very delicate and can easily be damaged.

Creams which are recommended for the local treatment of allergy reactions often contain an antihistamine, calamine and possibly a local anaesthetic as well. These products are discussed in Stings p.160.

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