Why life-threatening allergic reactions are on the rise

Allergy-related hospital admissions in England have more than doubled over the past 20 years

An epipen being used
Adrenaline given via injection can reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis
(Image credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Hospital admissions for life-threatening allergic reactions have increased from 12,361 in 2002-03 to 25,721 in the past year, latest NHS figures show.

The increase in admissions for food-related anaphylaxis and other adverse reactions was especially steep, rising from 1,971 to 5,013, according to data obtained by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Amena Warner, head of clinical services at the Allergy UK charity, told The Guardian that the increases were “hugely worrying”.

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What are allergies and anaphylaxis?

An allergy is the “response of the body’s immune system to normally harmless substances, such as pollens, foods, and house dust mite”, said the Allergy UK website. In people with allergies, the immune system identifies such substances “as a ‘threat’ and produces an inappropriate response”, ranging from itching to potentially life-threatening conditions.

Anaphylaxis is a sometimes fatal allergic reaction that can lead to upper respiratory obstruction and collapse. According to the NHS website, symptoms of anaphylaxis “usually start within minutes of coming into contact” with the allergy-triggering substance.

Symptoms may include swelling of the throat and tongue; difficulty breathing or breathing very fast; difficulty swallowing, tightness in the throat or a hoarse voice; wheezing, coughing or noisy breathing; feeling tired or confused; feeling faint, dizzy or fainting; and blue, grey or pale skin, lips or tongue.

“You may also have a rash that’s swollen, raised or itchy”, the site added.

Anaphylaxis needs to be treated in hospital immediately, so anyone who thinks they or someone else is having an anaphylactic reaction is advised to call 999 straght away.

Treatments can include adrenaline delivered via an injection or drip into a vein; oxygen; and fluids given by a drip into the vein.

Allergies are common, affecting more than one in four people in the UK at some point in their lives, and are especially prevalent among children. Some allergies “go away as a child gets older, although many are lifelong”, said Allergy UK.

Why are life-threatening allergic reactions rising?

Although “some of the rise could be attributed to the growth in population”, said BBC digital health editor Michelle Roberts, the NHS figures on hospital admissions “suggest anaphylaxis is on the increase”.

One likely cause is the wider availability and consumption of different foods from around the world.

“We are seeing trends in people being allergic to lentils, chickpeas and kiwis, foods that in years past weren’t part of the British diet,” said Allergy UK’s Warner.

She also pointed to another culprit for the allergies crisis – birch trees. According to experts, the growing number being planted in the UK has led to an increase in pollen fruit syndrome.

“We have got some very allergenic trees, one of which is the short-lived birch,” Warner told The Guardian. “It will try and get all its pollen out en masse each season.

“That could sensitise somebody who is predisposed to allergy.”

Laura Squire, the MHRA’s chief officer for healthcare quality and access, said that the NHS figures “highlight just how serious the consequences of allergies can be”. And the rising numbers of hospitalisations “highlight the need to know how to act in an emergency”, she added.

Is the government doing enough?

Campaigners are urging the government to do more to help prevent needless allergy-related deaths.

“The largest increase in food allergy diagnosis has been in children 15 and under, and now we are seeing between one and two children in every classroom living with a diagnosed food allergy,” said Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, whose daughter Natasha died at the age of 15 after eating a Pret a Manger baguette containing sesame.

Ednan-Laperouse, co-founder of the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, told The Guardian that the government should “prioritise allergy medical research, treatment and care within the health system, starting by appointing an allergy tsar to develop a national allergy strategy”.

Labour MP Jon Cruddas argued on PoliticsHome that there “ought to be plenty of appetite in Parliament to tackle this”. Cruddas pointed to a survey by YouGov, commissioned by Allergy UK, which found that 30% of MPs have an allergy and 61% have a close friend or family member with an allergy.

“For too long allergy has remained a poorly recognised and sometimes misunderstood health condition,” he wrote. “Despite three decades of campaigning, and some improvements, sadly allergic disease is still not taken seriously enough in the UK.”

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