Millions of people in the UK suffer with allergies, with the number of sufferers increasing by 5% each year. The range of things that people can be allergic to is vast and although some childhood allergies may go away, adults can also develop new allergies at any time. The most common allergens include grass and tree pollen (hayfever), dust mites, food, insect bites and stings, and animal hair.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction will usually develop within a few minutes after exposure to the allergen and can include the following:

  • Sneezing, itchy or runny nose
  • Itchy, sore or red eyes
  • Chest tightness, shortness of breath
  • Itchy red rash
  • Swollen lips
  • Upset stomach or diarrhoea
  • Feeling sick or vomiting

John Smith, PAGB Chief Executive comments,

“It can be distressing if you or a loved one suffer from an allergy, and an unexpected allergy attack can bring on a range of uncomfortable symptoms that can disrupt daily life. Some allergic reactions are severe and may require emergency medical help; and allergic reactions in children should be monitored carefully. However most common allergies, including hayfever and insect bites, can usually be managed at home with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and if needed, advice from a pharmacist.

“Pharmacies stock a wide range of OTC medicines to treat allergy symptoms in different formats, including tablets, sprays and eye drops, which can provide targeted and effective relief for sufferers. If you know you suffer with allergies seasonally, then be sure to visit your pharmacy in advance of the start of the season so that you can be prepared to treat symptoms at the first sign. PAGB’s recent Self Care Nation report found that a shocking 4%[iv] of people have visited A&E for hayfever symptoms, when they could have easily have treated themselves at home with the correct medication. If you suffer from allergies, it is advisable to check your first aid kit regularly to ensure you have essential items, such as antihistamines ready, in case a reaction occurs suddenly.

“If you need to be alert, drive or operate heavy machinery whilst seeking treatment, then be sure to speak to the pharmacist and check if your medication can cause drowsiness, or interact with any other medicines you may be taking.”

“Community pharmacies provide easy access to trained healthcare professionals without the need for an appointment, and are ideally placed to support people and provide advice on how to treat allergies.”

Community Pharmacist, Steve Riley shares his advice on how to diagnose and treat some of the most common allergies in the UK:


Hayfever is an allergic reaction to pollen and spores and can cause rapid onset or irritating and uncomfortable symptoms, including itchy, watering eyes, stuffy nose, sneezing and headaches. There are a variety of treatments available OTC to treat hayfever depending on the symptoms someone is experiencing, with antihistamine tablets being the most popular.  However, there are also various formulations that can be taken together to provide relief.

If suffering from itchy, watery and red eyes, ask the pharmacist for some sodium cromoglicate eye drops will help to relieve the symptoms. For a blocked nose, a nasal decongestant spray will reduce the swelling of blood vessels to ease breathing.

Food Allergies

A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to foods perceived as harmful and can result in symptoms such as itching sensations in the mouth, throat or ears, raised itchy red rash, swelling or even vomiting.

Whilst it is best to identify and all together avoid foods and traces of foods that you believe cause an allergic reaction, if you do suffer from a mild reaction unexpectedly, antihistamine medication may help ease symptoms. However, if a serious reaction happens which obstructs your airways, then you should call the emergency services immediately for medical assistance. You should also discuss the option of carrying an adrenaline auto-injector with your GP in case another reaction occurred.

Skin Allergies

Sometimes the immune system can overreact to certain substances and cause hives that itch or swell on the skin. Some allergens can also cause skin conditions, such as eczema to flare up. Emollients available as creams, ointments and soap substitutes can help to rehydrate and moisturise skin whilst acting as a barrier to water loss and mild topical corticosteroids can also reduce the swelling and redness that is experienced.

Insect Bites

Insect bites and stings can cause a small red lump on the skin which should clear up quickly, if treated correctly. To treat minor bites and stings you should clean the area of the skin and apply a cold compress for 10 minutes. If you’re suffering from swelling, try and elevate the area to reduce the swell. Antihistamine creams and tablets will help to reduce the severity of symptoms and reduce itching. Seek further medical advice if your symptoms do not improve after a few days, are worsening or you have signs of infection (e.g. increasing swelling, redness, pain or pus).

Household Allergies

There are plenty of allergens lurking around the home that could be responsible for unexplained allergy symptoms, including dust, mould spores and even domestic pets. It’s also important to be aware of household products, such as washing powder, which could be an allergen irritant for some people.

Household allergens can cause unpleasant symptoms all year round. Widely available OTC treatments will be able to control the symptoms, but you should also make sure that surfaces and floors are cleaned and dust regularly and bedding is washed weekly. There are also measures you can take to increase ventilation and dehumidify rooms within the house.

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