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How to think about your skin ‘allergy’

September 9, 2019 / Duncan Fisher
True allergy is hard to diagnose, and it can mimic a lot of other things.

The popular press is full of worry these days about how we’re all turning allergic to everything, and the prevailing opinion is that we’ve brought it on ourselves by no longer living ‘naturally’.

The problem with this is that ‘allergy’, at the level of molecular medicine, is actually quite complex, and it’s subtle, and it varies a lot; it can also look like a great many other conditions that are not allergies.

The rise of diagnosable eczema in the last 30 years is a point of illustration. We want to think this is evidence of our unnatural allergy epidemic. Actually, most eczema is not allergy. But the distinction, to be fair, is hard to make.

It’s little wonder that a lot of us have conflicting ideas about allergens and hygiene, and symptoms and treatments, and that our shops and websites try to sell us tests and cures that don’t work.

Allergy, simply put, is hard to understand. It seems like a simple concept. But it’s really the domain of the immunologist. And immunology is anything but simple.

What allergy is, and isn’t

Allergies are not intolerances, though they’re easy to confuse, and sometimes they go together. Asthma, eczema, and urticaria, for example, each exist in allergic versions and non-allergic versions.

Allergies, strictly defined, are when the immune system mistakenly produces antibodies against a foreign substance, which we call an ‘allergen’, that’s normally harmless.

These antibodies attach to a kind of white blood cell called a ‘mast cell’, which programs the release of inflammatory substances, like histamines. This release is an infection response. It’s this that causes the symptoms of allergic reaction.

There are non-antibody allergies too. They’re less common, and they move slower, as a rule. We know less about how these ones work. There are also drug allergies, immune reactions to medicines. And there is something called cross-reactive allergy, where people who are allergic to one allergen are also allergic to others without ever having been exposed.

Overall, it’s not known why some people sensitize to allergens and other people don’t. Developing an allergy comes from some combination of exposure to allergens and genetic predisposition to inappropriate immune response.

How do you know if you have an allergy?

There is no one allergy test that by itself can always diagnose an allergy. Your diagnosis needs to be done by a medical professional, who must consider details of your medical history, and who can run a series of tests for particular antibodies, and who can offer allergen challenge tests if necessary – you may have heard about ‘patch testing’ on skin. Even with all this, it can still be difficult to assess for allergy, or find the culprit allergen.

Here are some ‘tests’ that do not work:

  • Kinesiology.This checks for muscle weakness after exposure to various substances. Muscle weakness and allergy have no bearing on each other.
  • ‘Cytotoxic’ white blood cell tests (ALCAT, FACT, Bryan’s test). The white blood cell reactions that these tests observe are the same in people with and without allergies.
  • Hair testing, for electromagnetic resonance. Your hair has nothing to do with your allergies.
  • Acupuncture for energy blockage (NAET). This is never been shown to work. There is no substance called ‘energy’, in any case, that flows, or can be measured, or be blocked.
  • ‘Vega’ testing. This measures skin resistance in various places on your body. Skin resistance has nothing to do with allergic status. Vega testing cannot distinguish between allergy and non-allergy.

Is there help for your allergies?

Your doctor will be able to help you know what allergens to avoid, if you do have an allergy. This is the important step in reducing your symptoms. There are medications, depending on the allergy, that can also ease your immune system’s reaction.

There is mythology in popular culture as well, that you can simply ignore.

One is that food preservatives and artificial e-numbers are causing your allergies. This is extremely rare, and is associated only with the naturally derived additives that contain proteins. ‘E-numbers’ themselves are only designations for a lot of natural and synthetic additives, some of which are simply vitamins.

Another mythological cause is exposure to ‘unnatural chemicals’. Actually, synthetic substances are almost never allergenic. Going all-natural increases exposure to allergens. It’s true that a latex allergy exists – but the synthetic latex molecule has exactly the same structure as natural rubber from trees.

Another is that our bodies are in ‘toxic overload’. ‘Toxin’ is a misused term here, and in natural health circles tends to go undefined anyway. Sometimes ‘toxin’ means ‘sugar’. There is no evidence that a dietary toxic overload, whatever that may mean, contributes to allergies.

‘Junk food’ is supposed to cause allergies, for some reason. Research has not established that it does.

Occasionally you hear that you can ease some allergies with honey, or with royal queen bee jelly. There is no evidence for either of these. And in fact, some people are actually allergic to royal jelly.

Allergies have nothing to do with immunizations, either, though it is true that years ago, children allergic to eggs were not inoculated for MMR, because in those days the vaccine was produced from egg proteins. This is no longer true.

There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic product or pet. The term doesn’t mean very much. Anyone, theoretically, can develop an allergy to anything.

Nor should GM food be a problem. The proteins that genetically-modified food contains are no different from the proteins in any other form of our food.

Allergy isn’t just irritated skin

It’s an immune response, and a very complex one. The public discussion about allergy is full of misunderstandings and misconceptions. Self-diagnosis and treatment are unlikely to satisfy. If you do suspect you have an allergy, we are very happy here at Snapmed to investigate it with you.

Questions about your skin? Ask our dermatologists online for $35.