We are working in collaboration with Universities and healthcare professionals all over England supporting academic studies and research. Currently our focus is on scientific and consumer research on allergy and food intolerance to develop an improved understanding of the important issues and to ensure that medical practice is based on robust scientific evidence.
An allergy is a reaction the body has to a particular food or substance.
Allergies are very common. They're thought to affect more than one in four people in the UK at some point in their lives.
They are particularly common in children. Some allergies go away as a child gets older, although many are lifelong.
Adults can develop allergies to things they weren't previously allergic to.
Having an allergy can be a nuisance and affect your everyday activities, but most allergic reactions are mild and can be largely kept under control. Severe reactions can occasionally occur, but these are uncommon.
We are working in collaboration with Universities and healthcare professionals all over England supporting academic studies and research. Currently our focus is on scientific and consumer research on allergy and food intolerance to develop an improved understanding of the important issues and to ensure that medical practice is based on robust scientific evidence
The Food Allergy and Intolerance Research Programme aims to investigate the causes and mechanisms underlying food allergy and intolerance. The programme is currently funding research under a number of key themes of work (as outlined below).
Development of management thresholds for allergenic foods
Route and timing of exposure to food allergens in early life
Immunological aspects of food allergy
Prevalence and characteristics of food allergy and intolerance
Food allergen labelling and consumer choice research
Evaluation of FSA allergy guidance
More about the allergy research programme
Major aims include facilitating the development of allergen management thresholds for use by industry and regulators and identifying risk factors associated with the development of food allergy so that appropriate information can be provided for consumers. In addition the programme also focuses on understanding consumer attitudes to food allergy and intolerance and its labelling.
allergy – a reaction produced by the body's immune system when exposed to a normally harmless substance
sensitivity – the exaggeration of the normal effects of a substance; for example, the caffeine in a cup of coffee may cause extreme symptoms, such as palpitations and trembling
intolerance – where a substance causes unpleasant symptoms, such as diarrhoea, but doesn't involve the immune system; people with an intolerance to certain foods can typically eat a small amount without having any problems
Substances that cause allergic reactions are called allergens. The more common allergens include:
grass and tree pollen – an allergy to these is known as hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
animal dander (tiny flakes of skin or hair)
food – particularly nuts, fruit, shellfish, eggs and cow's milk
insect bites and stings
medication – including ibuprofen, aspirin, and certain antibiotics
latex – used to make some gloves and condoms
mould – these can release small particles into the air that you can breathe in
household chemicals – including those in detergents and hair dyes
Most of these allergens are generally harmless to people who aren't allergic to them.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction
Allergic reactions usually happen quickly within a few minutes of exposure to an allergen. They can cause:
sneezing, a runny or blocked nose red, itchy, watery eyes wheezing and coughing a red, itchy rash worsening of asthma or eczema symptoms
Most allergic reactions are mild, but occasionally a severe reaction called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock can occur. This is a medical emergency and needs urgent treatment.
How to manage an allergy
In many cases, the most effective way of managing an allergy is to avoid the allergen that causes the reaction whenever possible.
For example, if you have a food allergy, you should check a food's ingredients list for allergens before eating it. The Food Standards Agency has more information about food allergen labelling.
There are also several medications available to help control symptoms of allergic reactions, including:
antihistamines – these can be taken when you notice the symptoms of a reaction, or before being exposed to an allergen to stop a reaction occurring
decongestants – tablets, capsules, nasal sprays or liquids that can be used as a short-term treatment for a blocked nose
lotions and creams, such as moisturising creams (emollients) – these can reduce skin redness and itchiness
steroid medication – sprays, drops, creams, inhalers and tablets that can help reduce redness and swelling caused by an allergic reaction
For some people with very severe allergies, a treatment called immunotherapy may be recommended.
This involves being exposed to the allergen in a controlled way over a number of years, so your body gets used to it and doesn't react to it so severely.
What causes allergies?
Allergies occur when the body's immune system reacts to a particular substance as though it's harmful.
It's not clear why this happens, but most people affected have a family history of allergies or have closely related conditions such as asthma or eczema.
The number of people with allergies is increasing every year. The reasons for this are not understood, but one of the main theories is it's the result of living in a cleaner, germ-free environment, which reduces the number of germs our immune system has to deal with.
It's thought this may cause it to overreact when it comes into contact with harmless substances.