Allergies are on the rise all around the world — they’re now recognised as a global health issue by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with current predictions indicating that by 2025 half of the entire EU population will be affected by chronic allergic diseases.

In the UK, an estimated 41 million people are dealing with allergic conditions, ranging from eczema and asthma to hay fever (‘allergic rhinitis’) and food allergies.  

The list of allergies is long, and while some are more common than others, all of them have the ability to trigger unpleasant symptoms and sometimes, a severe reaction requiring emergency treatment. 

Allergic conditions can affect people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, and have a huge impact on quality of life, productivity, and healthcare costs — with allergies and related conditions costing the NHS an estimated £1 billion a year, according to Allergy UK.

The prevalence of allergies among children in the UK is estimated to be around 20%.

Their prevalence vary across different regions of the world, with a complex interplay of environmental, genetic, and lifestyle factors contributing to where and how they impact populations.

Understanding these patterns and the way allergies are evolving on our warming planet is key to developing effective prevention and management strategies — some of which are explored in our upcoming news-style programme Allergy Aware.

Watch this clip to learn more.

The rise of food allergies

Over the past few decades, there has been a noticeable increase in the prevalence of food allergies in the UK, with various studies suggesting that more people are being diagnosed year on year. An estimated 8% of children and 2% of adults in the UK are currently living with some form of food allergy, and as the number of cases rise, raising awareness is crucial.  

The prevalence of peanut allergies in children has more than doubled in the past decade, according to a study in the British Medical Journal.

In the UK, there are 14 food allergens that are recognised as the most common ingredients that can cause allergic reactions. These are: celerycereals containing gluten (such as wheat, barley and oats), crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters), eggsfishlupinmilkmolluscs (such as mussels and oysters), mustardpeanutssesamesoybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, and tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).

Food allergies can cause severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, a life-threatening, whole-body reaction that can occur rapidly. Anaphylaxis requires emergency medical attention, including the administration of epinephrine (adrenaline) via an auto-injector.

Living with a food allergy can significantly impact daily life, including dietary restrictions, constant vigilance when eating out or purchasing food products, and the need to carry emergency medication at all times to manage allergic reactions. They can also have a significant psychosocial impact on individuals and their families, leading to anxiety, stress, and social isolation, through fear of allergic reactions.

Various UK organisations and charities, such as Allergy UK and Anaphylaxis UK, are dedicated to providing support to individuals and families affected by food allergies, raising awareness, and advocating for better access to allergy care and resources.

The prevalence of food allergies among children is potentially linked to changes in immune function and changes in dietary habits.

The exact reasons behind the rising prevalence of food allergies in the UK aren’t fully understood, but possible factors include changes in dietary habits, increased exposure to allergenic foods, environmental factors, genetic predisposition, and changes in immune function.

Environmental and seasonal allergies

Hay fever is a widespread allergy affecting millions of Britons each year. It’s the most common form of non-infectious rhinitis, affecting between 10-15% of children and 26% of adults in the UK.  Severe symptoms can cause fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and affect sleep quality, leading to decreased productivity and quality of life. 

Pollen season
Around 44% of British adults now suffer from at least one allergy, with hay fever being the most common.

A study by the University of Manchester found that the prevalence of hay fever has risen by 33% in the past 20 years, an increase attributed to various factors — including environmental allergens, urbanisation and climate change. Warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels are stimulating plant growth and increasing pollen production; which, together with prolonged pollen seasons, is exacerbating hay fever symptoms.

Implementing measures to mitigate environmental factors, such as reducing air pollution and promoting green spaces are of vital importance in the prevention and management of allergic conditions.

Warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels are stimulating plant growth.

Treatment for hay fever in the UK typically includes antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays, decongestants, and allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots). Over-the-counter medications are widely available, but severe cases may require prescription medications or specialist referral.

The growth in asthma cases

WHO estimates that 400 million people will have asthma by 2025, based on current trends. Allergy is the cause of asthma in about 80% of cases, and while genetics play a key role in predisposing individuals to asthma, external factors have a huge impact.

Studies show strong links between air pollution exposure and asthma outcomes, including increased hospitalisations and mortality rates.

Approximately 250,000 people die prematurely each year from asthma; and 5.4 million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for asthma; 1.1 million of whom are children.

185 people are admitted to hospital because of asthma attacks every day in the UK.

Rising temperatures and air pollution isn’t just causing issues for hay fever sufferers, it’s also exacerbating asthma symptoms. 

Air pollution from fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and other pollutants, can trigger attacks, inducing inflammation, reducing lung function, and enhancing allergic sensitisation, especially in urban areas with high traffic.   

Addressing air pollution through emissions regulations, clean energy promotion and urban planning, is crucial for reducing asthma rates and severity in the UK and all around the world.

Asthma attacks hospitalise someone every 8 minutes; with a child admitted every 20 minutes because of an asthma attack.

WHO advocates for strategies to prevent and control allergies. Some of these include:

  • The promotion of breastfeeding, which has been shown to reduce the risk of allergic conditions in infants and young children;
  • The promotion of healthy diets — encouraging the consumption of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains;
  • Implementing measures to reduce exposure to indoor and outdoor allergens, such as dust mites, pet dander, pollen, and air pollutants, can help alleviate allergic symptoms;
  • Research indicates that reduced exposure to microbes and infectious agents in early childhood may lead to an overactive immune response and an increased risk of allergies.

Ensuring access to affordable and quality healthcare services, including allergy diagnostics, medications, and specialist care, is essential for effective management of allergic diseases, but currently access is not a reality for millions throughout the UK.

Efforts are ongoing to address health inequalities across different demographics and regions within the UK, ensuring equitable access to healthcare services and addressing underlying social determinants of health.

‘Allergy Aware’ — coming this October

To mark Anaphylaxis Awareness Week in October, ITN Business is launching a news-style Allergy Aware programme to shed light on various aspects of allergy management, while showcasing organisations making significant contributions to the field.

Alongside vital information on allergies, anaphylaxis, and prevention strategies, the programme will spotlight the invaluable work of organisations like Anaphylaxis UK and Allergy UK and others all dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by allergies.​

There are commercial opportunities for leading organisations to be featured in the programme and spearhead their own news item. If your organisation wants to share what you stand for and be part of this important conversation about allergies, please contact ITN Business’ Head of Healthcare Programming, Georgia Gerstein.