Allergies Overview

Allergies are common conditions – they are reactions to particular foods or substances, triggered by the immune system. Some allergies are more common than others, with many developing during childhood. A lot of these disappear over time, affecting adults less. About 1 in 4 people in the UK has an allergy.

What are the types of allergies and their symptoms?

The most common types of allergies are:

  • Grass and pollen (known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis)
  • Dust mites
  • Food – most commonly shellfish, fruit, cow’s milk, nuts and eggs
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Medicines – commonly certain painkillers and antibiotics
  • Latex – in rubber gloves and condoms
  • Household chemicals, such as detergents

Symptoms of these allergies may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Red or watery eyes
  • Wheezing
  • Rash
  • Worsening of existing asthma or eczema

The above are generally manageable and mild, but a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis can occur in some cases, requiring urgent medical treatment. 

How are allergies diagnosed and treated?

A GP can prescribe treatments for mild allergies. If the allergy is more severe, or it is not obvious what the cause of the allergy is and therefore how to avoid an allergic reaction, testing can be performed.

The most common tests are skin prick tests, where a potential allergen is put onto the skin to see if a reaction develops. Blood tests can also work in the same way.

If a food allergy is suspected, a doctor might advise eliminating different foods from a person’s diet until they have determined what exactly is causing them an allergic reaction.

Depending on the type of allergy, it may be possible to eliminate symptoms and a reaction by avoiding exposure to the allergen. For example, not spending time in wooded areas or areas with freshly cut grass in the case of hay fever. For animal hair or dust allergies, keeping the animal or the house clean and free of the substance in question can help.

Prescriptions can be given for a range of allergic symptoms. Antihistamines are the most commonly prescribed and can be taken at the onset of symptoms to relieve them.

Other treatments include steroid nasal sprays and decongestants for sinus-related symptoms, creams for skin rashes.

In the case of severe allergies which cause anaphylaxis, a doctor will provide an emergency injector pen (known as an EpiPen) which contains adrenaline and will need to be used if the person comes into contact with the allergen.

There are a few ways to confirm what sort of reasonable adjustments should be made for an employee with allergies:

An employee may not disclose their allergies upfront if they are minor and can be managed easily. If their allergy is more severe and they require an adrenaline injector, they should inform their employer as it is a health and safety concern. Colleagues who work in the immediate vicinity of the EpiPen user should be briefed on how and when to use the EpiPen should the employee who suffers with the allergy go into anaphylaxis. 

An employer is only required to make reasonable adjustments for an employee with allergies if it has a long-term adverse effect on their ability to perform their work duties. Questions as to the nature of an employee’s allergies and their severity can help determine whether this is the case.

What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with allergies?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with allergies if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has allergies of a sufficiently severe nature. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of allergies:

  • Relocating the employee’s workstation: for example, allowing the employee to move away from an open window if grass outside has been newly mown.
  • Additional breaks if the person’s allergy medication causes their concentration to lapse or makes them drowsy shortly following taking it.
  • Adjustments to duties depending on the severity of their symptoms, which may be variable and improve or deteriorate from one week to the next. This may also be dependent on when they take their medication if they are required to operate machinery, for example.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s allergies and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work. Particularly important is awareness of a colleague’s severe allergic reactions in the form of anaphylaxis. An employer may need to limit the consumption of foods that may trigger an employee’s anaphylaxis in the office in this instance.

Allergies Signposting

Allergy UK – the leading UK charity for information, support and care for people living with all types of allergies, also working to increase general public awareness of allergies, including symptoms and triggers (01322 619898).

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