Sneezing, coughing or found a nasty rash? You may not have thought of these less obvious allergies.
By Martha Roberts
Sniffles, sneezing, runny nose—if this sounds like you every spring, you’re far from alone. About 44 per cent of people in the United Kingdom suffer from at least one allergy, and that number is on the rise. For most people who suffer from allergies, symptoms are annoying, but not too severe; but for some, they can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.
There are several common types of allergies, including environmental (pollen, dust, ragweed), food (peanuts, shellfish), pets, and drugs. But there are also unusual allergies that you may not even have thought of as being capable of bringing on an allergic reaction. Here are 10 unusual allergies:
- Cleansing wipes
‘Cleansing wipes are really convenient but they can leave you with a nasty rash,’ says Jane Devenish, NHS Standards and Services Pharmacist. ‘They contain ingredients to clean your skin, as well as preservatives, and other perfumes.’
Although many cleansers or soaps contain similar ingredients, with wipes the residue remains in contact with the skin rather than being rinsed off. That could make allergy-prone skin react.
What to do: ‘If you need to use wipes, try to find one without fragrance or the preservative methylisothiazolinone, as these are the most likely culprits,’ says Devenish. Using a wash-off cleanser with a separate cloth is a better option to make sure your skin is clean and allergen-free.
- Your favourite lotion
Devenish says people often come into the pharmacy with red itchy skin caused by an allergy to lotions and creams they’ve used for a long time. ‘It can be hard work to work out what it is that has caused it, especially as sometimes the rash is delayed by a few days.’
Allergic responses happen when you are exposed to things repeatedly, but it’s not really clear why this happens suddenly after a long time. ‘It is likely to be because your immune system has been activated by something else and so overreacting to the wrong target,’ says Devenish.
What to do: Unfortunately, once you’ve had a reaction you’ll need to stop using the product. ‘It can be helpful to make a note of the ingredients so you can try ad work out which is the offending ingredient,’ says Devenish. Using an antihistamine tablet and steroid cream will help to relieve the itch, and it should go away within a week.
- Anti-itch or antibiotic creams
If your skin is itchy, your first thought may be to reach for an cream to calm it down. But you may well find that this does the opposite to helping the situation. ‘Strangely, sometimes people are allergic to the treatments they use to treat allergies,’ says Devenish. ‘In particular, anti-itch creams that might contain an anti-histamine or local anaesthetic.’
What to do: Try a different tack. ‘If you’re using one of these and the allergy isn’t improving, an antihistamine tablet might be a better solution,’ says Devenish.
- Cuddly toys
They may look cute, but cuddly toys can be magnets for dust mites. These can trigger a runny nose, coughing and wheezing, and may even lead to asthma attacks. House dust mites love warm environments and live in most soft furnishings such as curtains, sofas, beds, carpets and cushions where they feed off sheds of human skin.
‘It is often the protein in the dust mite droppings that cause an allergy and although you can reduce them they can never be entirely eliminated,’ says Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa, founder and director of Your Doctor.
What to do: ‘Wash all soft toys at 60 degrees once a month or place in a bag in the freezer for 12 hours minimum if it can’t be washed,’ says Dr Di Cuffa. ‘Use allergen-proof cover protectors for pillows, and wash bedding at a minimum of 60 degrees. Allergic children should avoid sleeping on the bottom bunk as allergens can fall on them.’
Some people who are allergic to latex develop an irritating rash. Latex is a plant-based rubber and for some people the allergy can be so severe that they develop an immediate, life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. It is believed that more than 6 per cent of the general population have an allergy to latex.
‘Latex allergy is often associated with the chemicals used to process the rubber,’ says Dr Di Cuffa. ‘It produces a skin reaction which can be florid and produce blistering.’
What to do: Many items that used to be made with latex are now made using less allergenic materials but most condoms still contain it. These tend to be made from a synthetic material such as polyisoprene, making them a safe option to guard against allergic reactions.
Although it is rare, it has been known for some women to have an allergic reaction to semen. ‘It is the body’s immune response reacting to the sperm in an inappropriate way,’ says Dr Di Cuffa. ‘Symptoms include burning and swelling after the semen has come into contact with the mucosa lining or skin, as well as hives and itchiness.’ In severe cases, an anaphylactic reaction can occur, causing breathing difficulties.
What to do: The allergy is often person-specific so a woman may have the allergy with one partner but not another. When the allergy is diagnosed, it is possible to be desensitised (similar to allergy shots) so that couples can have allergy-free sex.
If not, couples who are trying to get pregnant may have to consider IVF (in vitro fertilization) or IUI (intrauterine insemination), both of which bypass the situation of semen being in contact with the skin.
Wool can often be itchy – even if you don’t have an allergy. But some people can succumb to itching even more because of a sensitivity to lanolin, a natural wax-like substance produced by sheep.
‘Lanolin is an oil that causes skin irritation such as hives and an itchy rash, as well as eye-puffiness and nasal congestion,’ says Dr Di Cuffa. It can be found in cosmetics, lip balms and shampoos.
What to do: It is possible to get a blood test for an allergy. If you are lanolin-sensitive, it can’t be cured but you can use products that are labelled lanolin-free and can take antihistamines and steroids depending on the severity of the allergy.
- Hypoallergenic dogs
If you’re a dog-lover with an allergy, you may be better suited to a poodle or a poodle-cross. But that doesn’t mean you won’t react to it. ‘There’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog. It’s not just about allergens in the fur – there are allergens in the skin, urine and saliva as well,’ says Dr Chris Rutkowski, consultant allergist at Doctify.
‘Some people may find they are allergic to certain breeds while other people are allergic to them all and it’ll make no difference if they’ve chosen a breed that doesn’t shed much fur. You won’t know until you know!’
What to do: Try immunotherapy shots, which is a tiny dose of what you’re allergic to over the course of around 4-5 months. In the meantime, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after handling pets and keep your pet’s fur clean.
Tattoos have been growing in popularity over the past few decades. A 2015 YouGov surveyfound that one in five UK people now has a tattoo. Luckily, just 15 per cent of those have any regrets, but you might if you discover you’re allergic. Studies have found that the main allergy-causing pigment is the red ink.
Traditionally this has been due to the presence of mercury and its sulphides but more recently because of new organic pigments (namely Pigment Red 181 and Pigment Red 170). Some people even react to black henna dye, used in temporary tattoos.
What to do: Reduce the risk of a reaction by getting tattooed at a clean and reputable parlour. Ask for a spot test on your skin at least 24-hours before planning to have the full design done. ‘Remember, some reactions won’t start to appear for years – if your tattoo begins to look or feel different, see your doctor,’ says Dr Rutkowski.
- Artificial nails
59 per cent of women use nail polish in what has become a £1.5 billion industry. However, according to a 2016 Mintel report, manicure-lovers have been increasingly worried about the effects of chemicals on their hands and nails. Products such as nail glue, polish and acrylic nails can cause contact dermatitis after exposure, but it’s not always obvious that the nails are to blame.
‘A woman may touch her face and break out in a rash there because of a product she’s using on her nails, even if there’s no rash on her hands,’ says Dr Ru. ‘Not only that but nickel allergy can present as facial dermatitis as we touch our face many times during the day.’
What to do: If you have a nail cosmetic allergy, avoid all products that contain the allergen you are sensitive to. Hypoallergenic nail enamels that use polyester resin or cellulose acetate butyrate may be an alternative, but sensitivity is still possible.
These alternatives are also less durable and scratch-resistant than enamels made with tosylamide formaldehyde resin. Your dermatologist may have further specific advice, particularly if you are highly sensitive to nail cosmetic allergens.