10 unusual things you could be allergic to


Woman sneezing and blowing her nose in a field

Sniffles, sneezing, runny nose—if this sounds like you every spring, you’re far from alone. About 44% 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…

1. 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 about it:

“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.

2. A lotion you’ve used a long time

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 about it:

Unfortunately, once you’ve had a reaction you’ll need to stop using the product. Devenish says: “It can be helpful to make a note of the ingredients so you can try ad work out which is the offending ingredient.” Using an antihistamine tabletand steroid cream will help to relieve the itch, and it should go away within a week.

3. 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 about it:

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.

4. Cuddly toys

They may look cute, but cuddly toys and collectibles 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 human skin that has shed from us. Founder and director of Your Doctor, Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa, says: “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.”

Young girl cuddling toy bear

What to do:

Dr Di Cuffa says: “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.” 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.

5. Condoms

Some people who are allergic to latex develop an irritating rash when they are exposed it. Latex is a plant-based rubber and for some people the allergy can be so severe that they can develop an immediate, life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. It is believed that more than 6% of the general population have an allergy to latex and approximately 10% of health professionals.” Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa says: “Latex allergy is often associated with the chemicals used to process the rubber. It produces a skin reaction which can be florid and produce blistering.” A more immediate, anaphylactic reaction can occur that is thought to be because of the protein content of natural rubber.

What you can 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.

6. Semen

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 you can 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.

7. Wool

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. Dr Di Cuffa says: “Lanolin is an oil that causes skin irritation such as hives and an itchy rash, as well as eye-puffiness and nasal congestion.” It can be found in cosmetics, lip balms and shampoos.

What you can do:

It is possible to get a skin prick test or blood test to show 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.

8. Hypoallergenic dogs

It’s often said that if you’re a dog-lover with an allergy, you should buy yourself a poodle or a poodle-cross. But that doesn’t mean to say you won’t necessarily react to it. Dr Chris Rutkowski, Doctify consultant allergist, says: “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.” Some people may find they are allergic to certain breeds whilst 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!

Woman relaxing with dog on sofa

What can you do about it:

If your allergy is particularly bothersome, you could try immunotherapy shots where you’re given 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. For example, cleaning their paws if they’ve dug up earth or shampooing them if they’ve swam in a pond.

9. Tattoos

Tattoos have been growing in popularity over the past few decades. A 2015 YouGov survey found that around one in five UK people now has a tattoo. Luckily, just 15% of those have any regrets, but you could be wishing you hadn’t if you start to become allergic to the ink. Studies have found that the main allergy-causing pigment is the red one. 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 can even react to black henna dye, used in temporary tattoos.

What you can do about it:

Reduce the risk of a reaction by having your tattoo done at a clean and reputable place and having a spot test tattooed on your skin at least 24 hours before planning to have the full design done. Dr Chris Rutkowski, Doctify consultant allergist, says: “Remember, some reactions won’t start to appear for years – if your tattoo begins to look or feel different, see your doctor.”

10. Artificial nails

Brits love having their nails done – statistics show that 59% of women use nail polish in what has become a £1.5 billion industry. However, manicure-lovers have been increasingly worrying about the effects of chemicals on their hands and nails according to a 2016 Mintel report, and rightly so. Products used on nails 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. Dr Ru says: “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. Not only that but nickel allergy can present as facial dermatitis as we touch our face many times during the day.”

What you can do:

If you have a nail cosmetic allergy the best way to avoid any problems is by avoiding 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.