Many people are genetically predisposed to allergies – this is known as atopy and you often see allergies such as eczema, asthma and hay fever running in families. Atopy is becoming more common and the reasons for this are not entirely clear. One theory is that people have much better health these days and the body’s immune system doesn’t have a lot to cope with, so goes into “overdrive” in response to normally harmless substances.
There is some evidence to suggest that those who have grown up with lots of brothers and sisters are likely to have had numerous infections in childhood which their immune systems have had to fight off and so have simultaneously built up resistance to allergens; so perhaps the trend towards smaller families is a factor.
Other possible contributing factors include increased pollution in the atmosphere and the use of chemicals in food, medicine and household products. Whatever the cause, more and more people are becoming susceptible; an estimated three million people in England alone now consult their GP each year about an allergy-related condition.
What is allergy?
Allergy is a heightened or altered reactivity of the immune system to external substances. Conditions that are caused by an external agent or “allergen” include eczema, allergic asthma, urticaria (hives), hay fever and perennial rhinitis (all year round hay fever-like symptoms). The most common allergens are house dust mites, pollen from trees and grasses, cats, dogs, milk and eggs.
An allergic person’s immune system believes allergens to be damaging and so produces a special type of antibody (IgE) to attack the invading material. This leads other blood cells to release further chemicals (including histamine) which together cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction. A reaction can be caused by inhalation, swallowing, injection, or contact with the skin, eyes or airways. In mild cases there may be slight itchiness or reddening of the affected area. In serious cases anaphylactic shock can occur, where the body’s immune response is so extreme that it causes low blood pressure, constriction of breathing and sometimes even death. But this subject is too complex to be covered here.
Conventional medicine often involves taking antihistamines or steroids to manage symptoms. A huge range of products is also available over the counter. These may be useful but can also have unwanted side-effects like drowsiness, need to be used continuously and are not effective in all patients.
By contrast, homeopathic medicine stimulates the body’s own defence system to cope with exposure to allergens, rather than suppressing the allergic symptoms. Often, treatment doesn’t have to be taken continually – for example, a homeopathic medicine taken before the start of the hay fever season can protect the patient through the whole season, reducing the need for antihistamines.
There are a number of ways in which homeopathy can be used to help allergy sufferers.