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Making Sense of Allergies

Confusion about allergies is putting people needlessly at risk say experts and medical charities

Cover of Making Sense of AllergiesIn our guide, Making Sense of Allergies, published 4th June 2015, allergy specialists and charities1 warn that essential information and life-saving actions are being diluted in a sea of over diagnosis.

There has been a rapid rise in allergies across developed countries. The percentage of children diagnosed with allergic rhinitis and eczema have both trebled in the last 30 years. Allergies are now better diagnosed and their incidence in populations has risen. But there is concern that allergy has also become a catch-all diagnosis for unexplained symptoms, and this rise has been accompanied by a lot of non-medical diagnosis and treatment.

Most allergy tests and natural treatments offered on the high street and online have no scientific basis. These ineffective tests and other kinds of self diagnosis are creating a large proportion of people who think they have an allergy when they don’t. One study found 34% of parents reported food allergies in their children but only 5% actually had an allergy. Myths about artificial additives, junk food and immunisations causing allergies are also contributing to self diagnosed allergy.

The result is that people are not getting other medical conditions diagnosed, taking useless treatments, and needlessly restricting diets, including for children where resulting cases of malnutrition have been observed by clinicians. Meanwhile dangerous allergies are trivialised. Seven times as many people were admitted to hospital with severe allergic reactions in Europe in 2015 than in 2005. UK hospital admissions for anaphylaxis increased 615% between 1992 and 2012.

Members of our Voice of Young Science network have been myth-busting allergy tests and treatments as part of the Ask for Evidence campaign. See their short blogs about hunting for the evidence behind claims of allergy products, tests and treatments here

We've teamed up with Mumsnet to run a Q&A to answer any questions about allergies. The Q&A was launched on Mumsnet on Monday 8th June and closes on Sunday 14th June, with the answers published on Monday 22nd June.

 

Coverage

The Guardian -  Bogus allergy tests causing real harm, say experts

The Daily MailPlight of children WRONGLY labelled allergic: Youngsters are being left suffering from malnutrition after being misdiagnosed by their parents

Mirror - Children left 'malnourished' by strict diets because parents falsely believe they are suffering from allergies

ITV newsChildren being left malnourished after parents use bogus allergy testing kits, specialists warn

The Daily Telegraph - Parents falling for allergy myths is leaving children malnourished 

The Times - Middle-class children are starved over allergy fears

Belfast Telegraph - Experts warn on bogus allergy tests

Western Daily PressNew allergy guide finds allergies are often misdiagnosed and reveals other myths

BT News - Are allergies making you malnourished?

Pulse - Experts warn that patients are put at risk through myths around allergies

BMJ Allergy myths lead to underdiagnosis and overdiagnosis, say specialists

Web MD - Allergy myths 'causing child malnutrition'

 

Broadcast

ITV- 'Good Morning Britain' 5th June - Jo Revill (British Society for Immunology) at 15 minutes

BBC - 'Victoria Derbyshire' 5th June - Adam Fox (Allergy Academy) at 1 hour 9 minutes 32 seconds

BBC radio 4 - 'You and Yours' 5th June - Adam Fox (Allergy Academy) at 7 minutes 45 seconds 

BBC London Radio - 'The Breakfast Show' 5th June - Sally Bloomfield (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) at 1 hour 6 minutes 50 seconds

BBC radio 4 - 'Today Programme' 5th June - Samantha Walker (Asthma UK) at 2 hour 41 minutes 05 seconds

Channel 4 News 5th June - Adam Fox (Allergy Academy) Are parents overreacting to allergy fears?

BBC 5 Live - '5 Live Daily' 15th June - Stuart Jones (Lab Tests Online) at 1 hour 51 minutes 20 seconds

 

International

L'Express - L'obsession pour les allergies fait courir des risques aux patients

Irish Examiner - Are allergy myths making you malnourished

Stuff.co.nz - Parents falling for allergy myths leaves children malnourished

 

Blogs

The Conversation - also covered in IFL ScienceRaw StoryThe IndependentThe New Zealand HeraldMashable UK , The News MinuteSBSQuartz and Sparkonit -  Four myths about allergies you thought were true – but aren’t

Which? - 'Conversation' blog - Can you trust online allergy tests?

BBC Scrubbing Up - 'Warning over 'dodgy' allergy tests'

Cochrane - 'Evidently Cochrane' blog - Food intolerance or allergy: can you make sense of it?

The Intolerant Gourmand blog - 'Making Sense of Allergies'

Made for Mums - Is your child's food allergy a myth?

Neurologica Blog - Allergy and Other Health Scams

 

Comments

Tracey Brown, Director, Sense About Science: “Sense About Science has finally tackled allergy. It’s probably the biggest mess for science communication, where myths, misinterpreted studies and quackery collide with under and over diagnosis. The costs are huge – unnecessary actions for some and not enough action for those whose lives depend on it.”

Tariq El-Shanawany, Consultant Clinical Immunologist on behalf of British Society for Immunology: “I come across many misconceptions about allergy, and see the dual problems of over- and under- diagnosis of allergy. For example, in some cases patients are following needlessly restrictive diets, but in other cases haven't fully appreciated the importance of strictly avoiding a particular food.”

Emily Jesper, Assistant Director, Sense About Science: “People want information: there are 100 million allergy-related Google searches a year. There is still a lot that specialists don’t know about the causes of allergies, but it is important that what we do know is not drowned out by misinformation.”

 

From experts:

Michael Perkin, Consultant Paediatric Allergist on behalf of Cochrane UK:“The level of misinformation surrounding allergies is staggering. Most of my consultations include refuting firmly held beliefs that usually have no scientific foundation. It is a great step in the right direction that Making Sense of Allergies has been produced. I very much hope it will help to empower families to understand better what allergies are all about.”

Paul Seddon, Consultant Paediatric Allergist on behalf of Cochrane UK: “I commonly see children who’ve been put onto unnecessarily restricted diets because their parents assume, in good faith, that they have allergies to multiple foods on the basis of ‘allergy tests’ which have no scientific basis. This needs to stop, which can only happen if we debunk these 'tests'."

Adam Fox on, Consultant Paediatric Allergist on behalf of Allergy Academy: “Every day in my clinic I hear many of the urban myths that seem to have developed around allergy. Many of these result in delayed diagnosis, such as the use of completely unscientific tests, whilst others create enormous anxiety. I am delighted to have been part of an initiative that will help put pay to some of the many misconceptions around allergy.”

Rubaiyat Haque, Consultant Allergist on behalf of the British Society for Allergy & Clinical Immunology: “The growing incidence of allergic disease, combined with a relative lack of specialist allergy expertise in the medical community, present us with significant challenges. There is the real danger of severe allergic disease being missed, but just as frequently, allergy is being over diagnosed leading to unnecessary restrictions and inappropriate treatments. This new guide should assist the public in understanding allergies better and to empower them to seek good quality medical advice.”

Professor Sally Bloomfield, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: “There is a real need to unravel public misconceptions about the link between the rise in allergies and our obsession with cleanliness. The so-called hygiene hypothesis is a misnomer.”, but is seriously undermining our attitudes to hygiene at a time when, worldwide, antibiotic resistance is threatening our ability to treat infections and national and international agencies are looking for ways to contain this threat.”

Dr Suzy Lishman, President, The Royal College of Pathologists: “The rise of allergies in recent years has seen an accompanying increase in the circulation of misleading and sometimes dangerous advice about allergies, causing confusion and placing people needlessly at risk.

“Our members are at the forefront of ensuring the accurate diagnosis of allergies, identifying the substance you’re allergic to and, just as importantly, what you’re not allergic to. This excellent guide from Sense about Science provides valuable information for everyone, and will help people with a suspected allergy get the right advice, treatment and care.”

 

From medical charities & parenting forums:

Maureen Jenkins, Clinical Director, Allergy UK: “Allergy UK is often the first port of call for millions of people in the UK searching for advice and support for allergies and intolerances. Our Helpline dispels myths and misguided beliefs that people have about the diagnosis of allergy, on a daily basis. Our clinical team works hard to ensure that those with severe allergy are guided to allergy experts for correct diagnosis and management. We are pleased to be working with the Making Sense of Allergies guide, to better explain the truth about allergic disease.”

Moira Austin, Helpline & Information Manager, Anaphylaxis Campaign: “The Anaphylaxis Campaign receives thousands of calls and emails each year from people living with severe allergy, many of whom have been given outdated or inaccurate information and advice.  People coping with dangerous allergies are encountering cynicism: waiters think customers with food allergies are just being fussy. This situation is made worse by the confusion about allergy symptoms, testing, diagnosis and treatment which can result in great anxiety and can even put the patient at risk.”

Samantha Walker, Director of Research & Policy, Asthma UK: “Every day we hear from people via our helpline or social media, confused about the latest allergy news or health trends and seeking advice on how to manage their asthma as a result. Many of the 1 in 11 people with asthma in the UK also have allergies, so this is an issue that affects millions of people. Access to clear unbiased information is essential to help people make the right decisions about their own health and the health of their family.”

Justine Roberts, CEO, Mumsnet: “Allergies and intolerances are widely discussed on Mumsnet, and while lots of our users are very clear about the differences between the two, others may be more unsure - particularly if it's an emerging issue for either themselves or their child. We've got a long history of working with Sense About Science on issues from libel reform to fertility, and we're pleased they're participating in a Q&A with our users about the evidence around allergies.”

 

Contributor's disclosure of interest

 

1. Making Sense of Allergies was published with support from partners: British Society for Immunology, Cochrane UK,Allergy Academy, Allergy UK, Asthma UK, Anaphlaxis Campaign and British Society for Allergy & Clinical Immunology