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They often cause sneezing, rashes and itching and are likely to affect one in four people in the UK during their lives, but what exactly are allergies? Keep reading to find out more about allergic reactions and what causes them.

What is the definition of an allergy?

Put simply, an allergy is when your body reacts to a harmless substance or food as if it’s harmful. These substances are called allergens because they cause allergic reactions. When exposed to an allergen, your immune system incorrectly identifies it as something that is a threat. Your body then goes into attack mode, reacting the same way it would when trying to protect you from a virus or foreign bacteria. Within a few moments this triggers allergic reactions like watery eyes, itching and inflammation. Mild symptoms can usually be kept under control with a variety of treatments. Severe reactions called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock are rare but generally need urgent medical treatment.

What causes allergies?

It is not certain why some people have allergic reactions but more and more people are developing them each year. It is thought that allergies are a result of our immune systems being exposed to less germs due to cleaner, more sterile homes and surroundings. With less to protect us from, this may cause our immune systems to overreact when harmless substances like dust, pet dander or pollen enter our bodies.

Who do allergies affect?

Allergies tend to affect children, people with a family history of allergies or those with linked conditions like asthma or eczema. Although they are most common in children, adults can also be affected. Some children may grow out of their allergies as they get older but a lot are affected all throughout their lives. On the other hand, some adults can also develop allergies later in life, becoming allergic to substances they previously had no reactions to.

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