Skin Allergies – causes, symptoms and treatments

What is an allergic reaction?

Allergic reactions occur when immune cells over-react in response a certain stimulus. When an allergen combines with certain kinds of immune cells, the immune cells create antibodies to  ‘fight off’ the harmless allergen. Histamine is released  by the immune system causing inflammation and swelling. It is this false alarm within the body that causes the familiar allergic response symptoms such as, swelling, a runny nose, itchy eyes or mouth, shortness of breath etc. Allergens are harmless to the majority of people and only cause problems to those who are sensitive to them.

Common Allergens include:

  • Wasp and bee stings
  • Fungal or mould spores (in the bathroom and other damp areas)
  • Food (cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, fruits and nuts, soya, seafood,)
  • Dust mites (living in and feeding on house dust in mattresses, sofas, carpets and fluffy toys)
  • Medication
  • Nickel, rubber, preservatives and hair dyes (skin contact allergens)
  • Pets (cat, dog, horse or hamster)
  • Grass and tree pollens

So why is it hard to diagnose skin reactions?

This makes it sound as though it would be very obvious to find out what causes a reaction and in    the case of allergies it is. Serious allergic reactions can be very dangerous and are often easily diagnosed as the reaction to the allergen is very rapid. The difficulty with recognising the cause of a skin reaction is that the reaction might be a slight sensitivity or intolerance that has built up over time or could be caused by multiple stimuli.

Intolerances and Sensitivity

Intolerances are more difficult to diagnose as reactions are not always immediate. Sometimes exposure to something can cause a slight sensitivity that overtime can result in swelling, skin rashes, dryness or acne like spots. Intolerances are not directly related to the immune system in the   same way allergies are and are not usually taken so seriously by doctors.

What to do first

Your allergic reaction could be caused by a huge range of factors which is why it can be difficult to isolate what is causing the problem.  Your reaction could be related to a product that you’re using, temperature extremes, stress,, caffeine, alcohol, metals, sun exposure amongst many other things. When visiting your GP to discuss skin reactions/problems it’s a good idea to keep a diary of your skin experience. This information can help your doctor to give a more reliable diagnosis from the onset, it will also indicate that you are serious about sorting out your skin problem.

Detail the times your skin is at it’s worse, after bathing, sun exposure or exercise. It is also worth mentioning the times when your skin is at its best. Often just by observing the patterns in your skin condition you will be able to see for yourself what is causing your reaction.

Skin Tips for when an allergic reaction occurs

  • Stop using make-up and skin products. Keep it as basic as possible, washing and moisturising with a simple emollient cream such as aqueous cream.
  • Use lukewarm water to wash your face. Very hot or cold water can further irritate your skin.
  • If  out and about you could try using a aloe/chamomile baby wipe. This can calm the skin very quickly by removing any potential irritants and cooling the skin.
  • Take an antihistamine tablet. Make sure that you have checked with a doctor that this is suitable for you. If you are pregnant or breast feeding then this would not be suitable for you.
  • Try hard to to touch your skin in the affected area.
  • If on the body make sure the area is not being further irritated by clothes rubbing. Make sure you are wearing clothes made from natural fabrics.
  • Make sure you tie your hair back if you have long hair. This will help you to avoid touching your face and help cool the skin on your face.

Patch testing

If you have a skin reaction that is occurring continuously then you can ask your doctor to refer you for a patch test. This is the most commonly used test for skin allergies. Small amounts of different potential irritants are applied to the skin on a little round aluminium patches.

You will probably be asked to take any products you regularly, such as shower gel or body lotions with you as these will be tested alongside the range of common irritants. It is usually undertaken at hospital and then left on the skin for 24-48 hours before being removed to see the results.