Allergies: The Types, The Seasons & The Reasons

These days it seems that more and more people are reporting that they have some sort of allergy, whether it’s due to a particular type of food, medicine or certain types of weather. Although in many of these cases the signs and symptoms people experience are indeed caused by an allergic reaction, in some other cases, they are not. It is therefore important to first understand and define what an allergy is, before establishing whether or not you are truly allergic to something.

So, what is an allergy?

An allergy is a reaction that happens within the body to a particular substance which is known as an allergen (1). Allergens are often things we are in contact with every day, such as pollen, food products and dyes. An allergy develops when someone reacts to an allergen that the majority of the population have no reaction to, such as peanuts.

Allergies can range from being very mild to being fatal. Very mild forms of allergic reactions are sometimes described as an intolerance rather than an allergy. Intolerances are usually related to food products, and produce a different set of symptoms to an allergy. Food intolerances mean that you may have difficulty digesting a particular food product which then causes digestive problems such as diarrhoea or stomach pains, whereas a food allergy would produce other symptoms such as swelling and itching around the mouth.

Over one quarter of people will suffer from some type of allergy during their lives, making them a very common problem (3). The milder forms of allergies and intolerances are far more common than serious or life threatening allergies. Mild allergies can usually be managed by avoiding the allergen that causes them, or using treatment such as a tablet or lotion.

A bee taking pollen from a pink flower.

Photo by Aaron Scamihorn on Unsplash

Why do we get allergies?

You can develop a new allergic reaction to something you weren’t allergic to in the past. This means that new allergies can develop from things we have been in contact with but never reacted to before, which is why new allergies can develop in adulthood even if we didn’t have them in childhood.

So, why do allergies develop? It is not currently known exactly why allergies occur, but it has been shown that allergic symptoms develop when the body’s immune system is trying to defend itself against a substance which it believes is harmful, even if that substance is completely harmless(5).

Maybe we are too clean?

One possible theory for why we are getting more allergies is called the hygiene hypothesis. This theory suggests that due to increasing hygiene and cleanliness standards worldwide, a lack of exposure to germs as an infant means that the immune system is less well developed, therefore leaving us more prone to developing allergies (5).

Maybe it's because of genetics?

There also seems to be a genetic link when it comes to allergies, meaning that if your parents have allergies, you’re more likely to develop allergies yourself during your lifetime (6).

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction?

There is a wide range of possible symptoms that you may notice if you have an allergic reaction to something (7).

Mild allergies

In more mild allergies, these symptoms may include things such as:

  • A runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy eyes
  • A mild cough
  • Itchy skin
  • Upset stomach

Severe allergies

In more severe allergies, the above milder symptoms may be present, but you may also experience the following symptoms:

  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
  • Flushed or blistered skin
  • Dizziness or loss of consciousness
  • Severe stomach pain or diarrhoea
  • Fast heart rate

This type of severe allergy is called anaphylaxis and needs to be treated immediately as it can be fatal (2). Anaphylaxis is more commonly associated with food allergies such as:

  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products

Common allergies

Other common, but usually less serious allergies include (3):

  • Dust
  • Pets
  • Pollen
  • Mould
  • Medications
  • Latex
  • Some chemicals such as hair dye.

Although these common allergies are not usually serious, in some rare cases they can potentially cause serious symptoms to develop, or even trigger anaphylaxis as we have described above. Generally, they produce a mild reaction and can be easily treated without serious or long term effects (3).

What are the most common types of allergies in Iraq?

There is not much published research about the sorts of things that people are allergic to in Iraq, but one paper found that out of all of the substances that cause allergies affecting the nose and eyes, pollen was the most common trigger (4).

Some types of pollen can affect people more than others and this paper showed that in Iraq, date palm pollen and Bermuda grass pollen have been shown to cause the highest proportion of allergic reactions. Interestingly, it also showed that people living in urban areas had a higher rate of allergies than those living in the countryside, which may be due to allergy-causing pollution in cities, or a greater amount of exposure to allergens in rural areas.

A young girl holding autumn leaves in her hands.

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

What about seasonal allergies?

Not all allergies affect people all year round. Of course, a food allergy will cause a reaction every time you come into contact with that particular food, but for other allergies such as pollen, grass and tree allergies, this is not the case. These allergies are known as seasonal allergies and are generally worse in the spring and summer months (which in Iraq is roughly between the months of March and September).

The pollen levels in Iraq have not been measured (8), but in general the levels of these pollen allergens are higher when flowers are blooming and plants are growing rapidly.

How can you minimise seasonal allergy symptoms?

The best way to minimise allergy symptoms in these cases is to keep windows closed during the spring and summer months, and to take a bath or shower if you have been outside. You should also avoid handling plants and trees if possible and stay away from grass that is being, or has just been, cut.

How can allergies be treated?

There is currently no way of actively preventing or ‘curing’ allergies, but they can however be managed by avoiding the substance that triggers the allergy, and controlling the symptoms with medications. The following medications can be used to treat allergies:

The number 1

Antihistamines

This type of medication can help to relieve allergy symptoms and are available as tablets, capsules, syrups, skin creams, eye drops and nasal sprays. There are many different types of antihistamines available and you should ask a qualified doctor or pharmacist before deciding which one is right for you. Some forms can make you feel very drowsy and so are not suitable if you plan to drive. However, one type has not been shown to be better than the rest and so it is recommended that you find which type works for you and stick with that (9).

The number 2

Decongestants

A decongestant is a medication which helps to relieve the sensation of having a blocked nose. They are most often nasal sprays, but can also be a tablet, a liquid or a powder which is mixed with hot water and consumed. They can be taken by people who are usually fit and well with no other medical problems. If you do have any medical conditions or take any regular medications, may sure you check with a healthcare professional before using a decongestant. It is also important not to use them for a long time because they can actually make symptoms worse if used continuously for longer than a week (10).

The number 3

Lotions & Creams

A common symptom of allergies is itchy, red skin which can be very uncomfortable and unpleasant. To help treat this, there are a wide variety of lotions and skin creams available to reduce itchiness and inflammation. These are available over the counter in pharmacies and are either moisturisers, to keep the skin moist, calamine lotion to reduce itchiness, or a weak steroid which helps to reduce inflammation (11). Stronger steroid creams are available with a prescription but may not be suitable for everyone and so should only be considered if over the counter options are not effective.

It is incredibly important that you consult a qualified doctor or pharmacist before you try to take any of the above medications to treat your allergies. They will help you pick the best treatment for your symptoms, and will also help you avoid developing any complications from using the medications.

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  1. Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA). (2020). What is Allergy?. [online] Available at: https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/about-allergy/what-is-allergy [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  2. Anaphylaxis Campaign. (2020). Signs and Symptoms – Anaphylaxis Campaign. [online] Available at: https://www.anaphylaxis.org.uk/hcp/what-is-anaphylaxis/signs-and-symptoms/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  3. nhs.uk. (2020). Allergies. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/allergies/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  4. H. Rasheed, S., AL-Joboury, H. and AL-Hasnawi, S. (2016). Prevalence of Aeroallergens in Patients with Symptoms of Respiratory Allergy in Al-Najaf Province. Journal University of Kerbala, 14(4), pp.50 – 58.
  5. Bradford, A. (2016). What Is the Hygiene Hypothesis?. [online] livescience.com. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/54078-hygiene-hypothesis.html [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  6. Kidshealth.org. (2016). All About Allergies (for Parents) – Nemours KidsHealth. [online] Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/allergy.html [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  7. WebMD. (2018). Symptoms of an Allergy. [online] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/allergies/allergy-symptoms [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  8. Waibel, K. (2005). Allergic Rhinitis in the Middle East. Military Medicine, 170(12), pp.1026-1028.
  9. nhs.uk. (2017). Antihistamines. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/antihistamines/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  10. nhs.uk. (2019). Decongestants. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/decongestants/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  11. nhs.uk. (2018). Allergies – Treatment. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/allergies/treatment/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
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